President Obama’s State of the Union Address, among other things, called for high-quality preschool for every child in America. As of Thursday, February 14th, the administration had proposed a plan to work with states to provide preschool education for four-year-olds from low- to moderate-income families. In 2010-2011, 28% of four-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in state-financed programs (note that this number would not include private preschool programs, nor would it recognize the number of children in home-based care). The President’s plan would expand existing programs, such as HeadStart, and work to provide matching funds for state-level early childhood initiatives.
Certainly this is not the first time universal early childhood education has been proposed. As with all education initiatives, critics and supporters abound. Some argue that a government Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs of this kind lead to wasted tax dollars. Others argue that the benefits of ECE disappear by third grade and that HeadStart has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful. Supporters suggest that extending educational opportunity down would improve test scores and help mitigate the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students. Further, they look to other countries around the world, particularly those in the OECD, and point to the success of their early childhood education programs.
Given that rhetoric surrounding the expansion of ECE is often caught up in larger conversations about test scores and cross-country comparisons (in the form of PISA scores, among other things) how does the U.S. compare with other countries around the world? What does Early Childhood Education look like in more “successful” countries? Finally, what should “quality” ECE look like?
According to the OECD, around 30% of children under age three are enrolled in formal child care facilities. In Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, and Korea over 50% of children under age three participate in ECE. By age three, the average enrollment in formal ECE rises to 63% on average. In France, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, and Norway, over 90% of three-year-olds participate in ECE. In both of these measures, when compared to other OECD countries, the United States is below average (at 28-30% enrollment for children under age three, depending on who is measuring; and at approximately 35% enrollment for three-year-olds).
By age five, the point at which some states require students to enroll in Kindergarten, the United States still lags behind other OECD countries. In the majority of OECD countries, enrollment rates at age five exceed 90%. The only countries that do not fall into this category are: Slovenia, Denmark, Chile, the Slovak Republic, the U.S., Poland, Finland, and Turkey. What can be inferred from these data is that children in the United States, on average, start formal education programming later than most other OECD countries. This does not mean, however, that U.S. children are not cared for or do not receive any form of formal early childhood care (certainly there are – hopefully – no two-year-olds watching themselves), but that the U.S. has a history of non-formal and/or home-based childcare.
Let’s turn our attention to the next questions: what exactly is ECE? What might it look like? According to UNICEF, ECE programs should address the following:
When well nurtured and cared for in their earliest years, children are more likely to survive, to grow in a healthy way, to have less disease and fewer illnesses, and to develop thinking, language, emotional and social skills. Yet over 200 million children under five worldwide do not receive the appropriate care and support to become physically healthy, mentally alert and emotionally secure. Because of poor health, under nutrition and poor learning environments that fail to provide enough responsive stimulation and nurturance, too many children around the world are entering school late, performing poorly at school and not achieving their full potential…The underlying cause of all this is poverty.
Based on constructions of childhood as a universal, biological, developmental period in one’s life, UNICEF considers the first three years of life to be of critical importance. Ensuring that children reach developmental benchmarks in terms of physical, intellectual, and emotional development will, assumedly, help them perform better in schools.
What exactly this entails can be somewhat fuzzy and highly contextual. However, there seems to be a general assumption in ECE literature that children must meet certain specific “benchmarks” of development to prepare them, among other things, for formal education, as well as for participation in the wider culture. (For more discussion of culturally-specific early childhood education, I highly recommend Preschool in Three Cultures and Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited both of which were, in part, written by Joseph Tobin, an anthropologist and early childhood specialist.)
Bringing this back to President Obama’s proposal, I still have several remaining questions. What would the cost of ECE be to participants? Since part of the purpose is to provide care for low- and moderate-income families, will the costs be low enough such that parents are able to afford it as compared to alternatives, such as home-based care? How does President Obama plan to encourage parents to participate, particularly as there is not a strong history of participation in ECE programs in the U.S.? Moreover, if programs target low- or moderate-income families, what steps will be taken to ensure that these programs are not as stratified as formal education programs tend to be?
What questions or thoughts do you have about Early Childhood Education?
Photo via UNESCO