Critical Junctures

ECHOES looks at how social, political, and economic conditions shaped ECE from its beginnings and at key turning points and how they continue to shape our present system.

Part of Early Childhood History, Organizing, Ethos, and Strategy Project

How did we come to have our present-day ECE system?

Use the timeline below to examine turning points in the history of early care and education and explore how politics and political power shape changes over time. Learn how relationships among gender, race, and class became entrenched in the ECE system, suppressing  alternative visions and reforms.

1877 Black and White Wooden Carving_The Instruction of Children in the Kindergarten Cottage-timeline



Kindergartens and day nurseries emerge when most believe a (White) mother’s place is in the home, guiding her young children, and schools are not necessary for children under six because their capacity for learning is underestimated. Activists of various races and classes challenge these assumptions by establishing kindergartens for younger children as well as less-accepted day nurseries for children of working mothers whose lives do not fit that ideal.

1910 At Play on the Roof-Garden


Progressive Era

Everyday life changes dramatically for families as many move to seek new forms of livelihood in densely populated cities. To address new concerns about the safety and socialization of young children, day nurseries and kindergartens expand but follow different paths. Half-day kindergartens for children five and older gain a foothold in public schools, while private kindergartens and full-day nurseries serving younger children work to retain staff and stay afloat.



Prosperity, Depression, and War

More mothers are working, and day nurseries are in short supply, so most rely on personal networks for child care. Private nursery schools emerge for a few middle-class three- and four-year-olds in the 1920s, but the Great Depression undoes the growth of public kindergartens. In response to activist demands and the crises of the Depression and WW2, the federal government temporarily provides some emergency funding for nursery schools and, later, educational child care programs.

1979 Head Start_arms raised(1)


After WW2 to Nixon Veto

More and more working mothers scramble to find and pay for child care and early education in the private market. After closing its wartime child care program, the federal government restricts its funding to welfare-linked child care subsidies and Head Start for children in poverty. By 1970, a majority of five-year-olds attend at least half-day public kindergartens, but Nixon’s veto of bipartisan legislation in 1971 crushes hopes for publicly funded early care and education.

NorthStar_classics 001(1)


Demand and Dysfunction Grow

Demand for child care and early education grows, and the private market keeps expanding. Limited federal funding for child care and Head Start increases in the 1990s but fails to cover all eligible families living in or near poverty. Most families still struggle to afford services. Underpaid teachers lead the national Worthy Wage Campaign, adding their voices to the call for greater and more equitable public investment in care and education for children from birth to age five.


2001 – Present

At a Crossroads

The Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic increase pre-existing inequities and the instability of an ECE system that relies on the private market and inadequate crisis-driven public investment. Early care and education stands at a crossroads. Will government investments mirror past approaches, continuing to shortchange families, children, and educators? Or will they transform early care and education into a shared public responsibility, like education for older children?

Beginnings (1870-1889)
Progressive Era (1890-1919)
Prosperity, Depression, and War (1920-1945)
After WW2 to Nixon Veto (1946-1971)
Demand and Dysfunction Grow (1972-2000)
At a Crossroads (2001 – Present)

ECHOES Publications

The Kindergarten Lessons We Never Learned

Marcy Whitebook, Claudia Alvarenga, Barbara Zheutlin | September 15, 2022

Working Toward Early Childhood Education Equity

Marcy Whitebook, Rachel E. Williams | September 15, 2022

Rights, Raises, and Respect: The Early Educator Compensation Movement

Peggy Haack, Rosemarie Vardell, Marcy Whitebook | September 15, 2022

Center Educators’ Activism

Ashley Williams, Peggy Haack, Marcy Whitebook | September 15, 2022

Uncovering the Role of Early Childhood in Black Women’s Clubs Work Towards Racial and Gender Justice

Rachel E. Williams | September 15, 2022

Anna Evans Murray: Visionary Leadership in Public Kindergartens and Teacher Training

Marcy Whitebook, Rachel E. Williams | March 17, 2021

Haydee B. Campbell: Expanding Education for Black Children and Opportunities for Black Women

Rachel E. Williams, Marcy Whitebook | February 25, 2021

Josephine Silone Yates: Pedagogical Giant and Organizational Leader in Early Education and Beyond

Rachel E. Williams | February 4, 2022