Global Perspectives: Starting well: Benchmarking early education across the world

Starting well: Benchmarking early education across the world is a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit commissioned by the Lien Foundation in Singapore.  The authors of Starting well interviewed early childhood education practitioners, researchers and policymakers in order to provide an international perspective on this issue.  In addition to interviews, the authors also debuted a new index of preschool accessibility and quality, in which they ranked preschool provision in 45 different countries, ranging from OECD countries to developing economies.  While the policy recommendations made in the report are very useful, it is the index that is the real strength of this publication; not only does it create an early childhood education league table that ranks countries both in and out of the OECD, but it takes into account both quality and accessibility—issues that are equally important when it comes to preschool education, and must be deftly managed by national and state governments.

At the outset, the report’s authors take care to point out the differences between preschool and childcare.  They point out that there is a growing understanding of the importance of the developmental phase of a child’s life between the ages of three and six, as well as research indicating that preschool programs help with child development and school readiness and serve to help level the playing field among children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.  At the same time, enrolling a child in preschool has been shown to save money on schooling down the road, as children with a strong preschool foundation are less likely to need remediation or to repeat a grade.  Another economic benefit of preschool programs is that they facilitate female participation in the workforce.  The report cites James Heckman’s work on the economic benefits of preschool education; he has found that government investment in preschool yields an annual return of 7 to 10 percent in the form of lifetime wages.  Preschool also yields other lifetime social benefits such as reduced crime rates, lower welfare and education costs, and increased workforce productivity.  Thus the report, and the index used to measure the strength of early childhood education systems, takes the perspective that a universally available, high-quality preschool system is the goal that governments should be working toward.

The index is broken down into four main categories: social context, availability, affordability and quality.  These are weighted and the scores in each category are combined to make up the final score for each country.  Quality carries the most weight, and accounts for 45 percent of the final score.  Availability and affordability each account for 25 percent of the final score, and social context accounts for the final 5 percent.  Within each category, there are several sub-categories indicating how the authors of the report arrived at the final score for each category.  Social context measures the prevalence of malnutrition, the under-five mortality rate, the DPT immunization rate, the gender inequality index and the adult literacy rate of each country.  Availability measures the preschool enrollment ratio at age five or six and for the relevant age group, early childhood development and promotion strategy, and the legal right to preschool education.  Affordability measures the cost of private preschool programs, government spending on preschool education, available subsidies for underprivileged families, and subsidies for preschools that encourage including underprivileged children.  The quality category is comprised of the teacher-student ratio, average preschool teachers’ wages, curriculum guidelines, the training of preschool teachers, health and safety guidelines, data collection mechanisms, the links between preschools and primary schools, and parental involvement and parent education programs.  The scores for each country are derived from a combination of quantitative data and “unique qualitative assessments.”

By these measures Nordic countries fare best, and European countries in general tend to outperform Asian, North American, Latin American and African countries.  The report explains the predominance of Europe in the top 20 countries on the league table (16 of the top 20 places, in fact) by pointing out that, “it is culturally and politically accepted in Europe that the government will assume a significant role in delivering preschool education.”  Thus, the top countries are all countries that have, for the most part, been investing in preschool education for decades: Finland, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands.  New Zealand and South Korea round out the top ten performers.  In addition to finding that Europe commands the majority of places at the top of the league table, the report finds that the average income per person in any given country correlates strongly with the overall ranking – rich countries perform better than poor countries, for the most part, even within Europe.  That being said, there are several countries, including the United States, Japan, Canada and Australia, that are ranked in the middle of the pack, despite being wealthy.  Many of these countries, while having some very high-quality preschools according to the index, do not have good policies in place to ensure fair and equal access to these programs, thereby accounting for their relatively poor performance.

Of course, the authors acknowledge that every country has its own particular challenges in achieving a universal, high-quality preschool system.  Some have a diverse population made up of students of varying language, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.  Others may suffer from lack of funding.  Still others have large proportions of the population living in rural areas where it is difficult to establish programs.  Less wealthy countries typically have to make a choice between expanding access and improving quality at the outset, and, when that is the case, find that it is particularly important to educate parents on the importance of both early child development and early learning.

The report provides policy recommendations in the areas of both access and quality.  In terms of access, the authors and the experts interviewed recommend putting a system of subsidies into place, either in the form of “demand-side” subsidies (money or vouchers flowing directly to families) or “supply-side” subsidies (funds provided directly to preschools to incentivize enrolling children who cannot otherwise afford to attend).  Although most of the top-performing countries generally pursue supply-side policies because the government provides universal preschool, the authors find that many countries might find it feasible to use a combination of supply and demand strategies to ensure access.

On the quality side of things, the report recommends several important policy changes: improving teacher training and teacher quality, establishing clear curriculum guidelines, managing the transition between preschool and primary school, improving teacher-student ratios, increasing parental involvement, having clear health and safety guidelines in place, and collecting data with “robust data collection mechanisms.”  Teacher quality is perhaps the most centrally important component of providing quality preschool education, and varies widely from country to country, with Finland requiring a bachelor’s degree (many preschool teachers also have master’s degrees) and other countries hiring “literally anybody who is physically able and interested in working with children.”

This report makes clear that in order to establish a quality preschool education system, it must be treated, for the most part, like the primary and secondary education system, with the same types of policy levers and quality assurance mechanisms.  Indeed, the report often relies on well-established primary and secondary best practices in order to draw policy recommendations for early childhood education.  The authors mention, for example, Finland and South Korea’s practices of recruiting teachers from the top of the high school cohort, suggesting that this is a way to manage quality (though they do point out that this is not strictly enforced in either country when it comes to choosing preschool teachers).  They suggest working to build a profession able to attract high-quality recruits by compensating preschool teachers at a fair and living wage, reducing the teacher-student ratio to make the job more attractive, and establishing regulations and specific skill sets that are required of teachers in order to enter and remain in the profession.  They furthermore suggest working to build strong leadership in preschools, which would further contribute to the sense of preschool teaching as a profession while also encouraging the leaders to serve as innovators in the field.  Apart from improving teacher quality, putting curriculum guidelines and learning expectations into place can help bring lower-quality teachers up to a higher standard, and help all preschools provide the type of education expected of them.  Ultimately, the report’s authors and the interviewed experts argue, when funds are limited, human capital development—that is, the preparation of the preschool teachers—must absolutely be prioritized over things like technology and infrastructure.  However, one policy to “improve” early childhood education programs—using standardized tests to measure student performance and holding teachers accountable based on the test scores—which has been growing in favor in countries like the United States is not part of any of the recommendations found in the report, nor is it a tool used by any of the top performers.

It is interesting to note where the world’s top performers in primary and secondary education fall in this ranking, given that preschool is increasingly seen as an important foundation for high student performance in later years.  Four of the top primary and secondary performers crack the top ten in this early childhood education league table, with Finland ranked first, the Netherlands eighth, New Zealand ninth and South Korea tenth.  Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Australia and Singapore are in the middle of the pack, rated at nineteenth, twenty-first, twenty-sixth, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth, respectively.  China fares very poorly, ranked just three steps up from the bottom.  It is interesting to note that Asian countries fare, by this ranking, generally worse than their European and commonwealth counterparts.  It is telling to compare the quality rankings to the overall rankings.  When looking at quality alone, several of the top-performing Asian countries actually fare much better.  South Korea is ranked tenth, Hong Kong eleventh, and Japan thirteenth.

We wonder whether the relatively low rankings of the Asian countries is a function of the perspective from which the data was gathered and analyzed.  More women have been in paid employment outside the home in Northern Europe than in Asia for decades now.  No doubt, that fact goes a long way toward explaining why Asia has not developed anything like the infrastructure for supporting very young children outside the home that Europe now has.  That fact by itself does not mean that children are less well cared for, but it does mean that the observer will see less formal infrastructure there for taking care of very young children.  But women are now entering the paid workforce in Asia in greater numbers than previously and the governments in those countries may find that they are more interested in European-style policies in this arena than was previously the case.

As workforce demographics change and the importance of early childhood education shifts away from daycare alone, we may see some countries, already performing well in quality measures, begin to climb the overall rankings.  Singapore, clearly, as evidenced both by this report and another recent report from the Lien Foundation, Vital Voices for Vital Years, has begun to invest a great deal of support into improving the quality of preschool education, perhaps because Singapore has long encouraged the entry of women into the paid workforce.  As they improve, it seems clear that countries will need to follow, for the most part, a roadmap set by the top performers in primary and secondary education.  At the same time, they will need to take into account some of the important differences at this life-stage, including the need for increased parental involvement outside of school, and quality healthcare for young children.