Preschoolers watch Elmo and Cookie Monster at The Washington Post. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

It is not news that quality early childhood education is vital to the academic success of most children — especially those who live in poverty — but the issue is getting new attention from policymakers, corporate funders and others who recognize it as fundamental to real reform.

The Obama administration is conducting an early childhood education version of its Race to the Top funding competition, offering states a piece of a $500 million pot if they submit an application with initiatives embraced by the Education Department.

Corporations are donating millions of dollars to improve programs. PNC Financial Services Group announced last week that it was spending $250 million over the next decade to expand an effort begun in 2004 to improve early education programs.

Still, experts say much more needs to be done, a theme echoed by speakers at an early childhood education conference hosted by The Washington Post last week (and sponsored by PNC). Here are some issues under debate.

Q.What does “high quality” mean when talking about early education programs?

W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said that quality programs for 3- and 4-year-olds develop skills and knowledge in language and literacy, math, science, social studies and the arts, while also addressing social, emotional and physical development. The Center for the Child Care Workforce says that such programs also have qualified and well-paid staff, low staff turnover, low student-teacher ratios, provision of comprehensive social services and nurturing environments, and periodic licensing and/or accreditation. The results of such programs, research shows, are students who succeed better academically, graduate from high school more often and are more economically productive later in life. Economic impact studies have shown that every $1 invested in early childhood education saves taxpayers up to $13 in future costs.

Is there too much focus on academics in early childhood education today?

There is no question that formal early literacy learning is important for many children, especially those who live in poverty. New census data show that 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Research is unequivocal that language skills, which are the foundation for school readiness, are based primarily on exposure to language, and one landmark study showed that children from low-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than other youngsters before the age of 4. Still, there is growing concern among some early education advocates about the best ways to provide students with language-rich experiences. Experts including Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., have warned that the current focus among reformers on school “accountability” robs young children of time to learn through play, which is how youngsters grow and learn best.

Where is the Obama administration on early childhood education?

Administration officials say early childhood education is vitally important. At The Post’s conference, Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to President Obama for education, said that there is an economic and moral imperative to provide quality early childhood education. “We know that there is a powerful difference that early childhood education can make . . . in shaping a child’s future,” he said. The administration, he said, has launched a comprehensive plan to expand and improve education for children from birth to age 5, and he noted that “a disproportionate share of our children” live in poverty.

Critics say that early childhood education has not been a priority of the administration, which has focused much energy on test-based accountability efforts for schools and educators, as well as the expansion of charter schools.

Early childhood education was not part of the first competitive rounds of the $4 billion Race to the Top, Obama’s signature education initiative. After being criticized for that omission, Education Secretary Arne Duncan this year announced a $500 million round of the contest geared toward early childhood education. When the rules for applying were announced, critics (including myself) noted that the first criteria involved the use of standards and assessments to judge whether a child is ready for kindergarten. And nowhere in the rules was there anything about giving children time to creatively explore and learn through play.

Head Start has been around for decades. Is it high quality?

The federal government provides access to child care and early childhood education through a number of initiatives — Head Start, Early Head Start, Title I Preschool Services, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Head Start is the oldest and largest publicly funded early childhood education program. Overall, Barnett says that Head Start is better than most others but that its quality can and should be improved. One place where that has been achieved is in Tulsa, Okla., the state thought to offer pre-kindergarten to more 4-year-olds than any other. As part of an early education push, Tulsa school officials oversee pre-K in public schools and partner with Head Start, paying fully certified teachers to work in the Head Start programs at the same salaries as if they were teaching elsewhere in the system. Kids in the Tulsa Head Start programs have learning gains higher than the Head Start national average, Barnett wrote in a 2010 article.

What, some of the guests at The Washington Post conference were asked, would they do if they had the chance to improve early childhood education with one initiative?

Most of the answers called for taking action that would raise the level of awareness among parents about the need to provide their children with quality early learning experiences. Barnett’s National Institute for Early Education Research reports that for the 2009-10 school year, pre-K enrollment across the country was 26.7 percent at age 4. Part of the problem is that there are not enough programs, and part is that many families don’t understand the importance of early childhood education.

If she could do one thing, Phyllis Magrab, director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, said: “I’d be practical and try to get local radio stations,” and “I would create some messaging that was routinely and religiously put forward so that we could really begin to truly reach the public at the grass-roots level” about the importance of early childhood education.