Tucker’s Lens: An Interview with Sharon Lynn Kagan

Sharon Lynn Kagan

An interview with Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy, Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families and, Associate Dean for Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University and Professor Adjunct at Yale University’s Child Study Center.

Marc Tucker:  Over the years, you’ve travelled all over the world, consulting with governments on early childhood education issues.  Have you seen an increased interest in developed and developing countries in early childhood education recently, and, if so, what do you think has spurred this interest?

Sharon Lynn Kagan:  Unequivocally I have seen growing interest in early childhood education.  Countries all around the globe have been motivated by the results of the neuroscience research showing how the course of development of children’s brains in the early years has irrevocable effects in school and later in life, by the research showing how much money is saved in the long run by governments that invest in early childhood education and by the evaluation research that shows strong academic gains for children who have had early childhood education as compared to those who don’t.  Countries, in other words, are much more aware than they used to be that early childhood education is a social investment that has unusually strong returns.

One of the most interesting things I have observed lately is the growing instances of western countries sending emissaries from business and industry to other countries to speak about the benefits of investing in early childhood education at forums sponsored by organizations like the World Bank and UNESCO.  Academics and other intellectual leaders are doing much the same thing. It is clear that all these efforts are paying off in greatly increased government interest in early childhood education all over the world.

Tucker:  In the United States, until fairly recently, a substantial fraction of adult women were full-time homemakers.  However, as the economy tightened up and more women began to enter the workforce to bring in a second income, that meant that the person who would traditionally provide full-time childcare at home could no longer do so.  This shift appears to be occurring in Asia now.  Do you think this could also be another reason for the rise in government-provided early childhood education?

Kagan:  I do think it is true that this is happening in many countries, but I do not think it is as strong a motivator as the data on the effects of early childhood education.  The most potent motivator has been the neuroscience research, which has revealed that a large proportion of brain development occurs by the age of five.  Social and economic shifts are certainly a factor in the expansion of early childhood education worldwide, but less so than the research.

Tucker:  As countries are beginning to focus on developing early childhood education systems, what shape are these systems taking?

Kagan:  Early childhood education systems are contingent on several different variables.  First, the amount of money a country wants to invest.  Second, the capacity for development and the infrastructure a country has in place.  In some countries, there are limited teacher training facilities and limited regulatory bodies.  These countries are often more interested, therefore, in developing community-based and informal programs.  In countries where there is already an infrastructure in place, they are more likely to move toward formal, center-based programs. The nature of the investments made are based on the context in that country.

Tucker:  Talk, if you will, about the process that governments go through in formulating policy on early childhood education.  Can you characterize these stages?

Kagan:  It is an iterative process.  It begins with governmental awareness of the importance of early childhood education, and the importance of making these investments.  The second step is understanding what already exists in both the formal and informal markets in any given country, since early childhood education frequently takes place in informal markets.  The third step is developing a broad-based, long-term plan.  Often, external experts are called in to help with this step, particularly in countries without a lot of infrastructure already in place.  You’re right in thinking that this all happens incrementally.  Once there is a plan, countries begin to bite off pieces of it that make sense in that context.  The pieces are different depending on the country.  Some begin with infrastructure development, some begin with teacher training, or data and monitoring systems.  In other countries, they think that process is too slow and immediately go out into villages and communities and begin to establish centers.  After gaining awareness of the importance of early childhood education and developing a plan, the steps vary based on the country.

The one thing that is happening with less frequency than I would like is a serious approach to the evaluation of the impact of these programs.  Because money is short, and countries want to maximize the amount of services they can offer, they tend to invest less than they should in evaluation.

Tucker:  Can you characterize what elements need to be in place if a country is to have a world class early childhood education system?

Kagan:  Patience is the most important.  It will not happen overnight. They need at the outset a set of guidelines or principles that reflect the national heritage and national values and priorities of the country, but at the same time serve to guide early educators toward a clear set of goals.  Second, they need to focus on building a professionally competent workforce.  The third component is equitably dispersed, quality facilities, so there are not uneven service patterns in which some children are well-served and have easy access, and others poorly served with little access.  Lastly, they need to figure out how to provide sustained government support.  I’ve observed that, in all countries where the core elements have been put in place, there is strong public support for the program and governments are able to make a sustained commitment.

Tucker:  What kind of institutional and regulatory structures are required to create this type of system?

Kagan:  The number one requirement is a training capacity so you have people who can do the work well.  The second is very clear standards and expectations for what both teachers and children should know and be able to do.  The third is a routinized monitoring system that allows for chronicling the performance of the programs in a child-sensitive way – a whole accountability apparatus needs to be developed.  The most successful countries also find ways to build in mechanisms for parent and community engagement.  Early childhood education is very much a part of the community, and segregating from other community functions does the families a disservice.

Tucker:  If you were designing an early childhood education system, how would you think about the balance between play and cognitive development?

Kagan:  I feel very strongly about this, because it is a false dichotomy.  Play is the pedagogy; play is the means by which children learn.  All programs need a large amount of time for children to explore through play.  By play, I do not mean letting children mill around aimlessly, but guided play, intentional play, so there is meaning derived from what they perceive as play.  There also needs to be very clear specifications about content.  To that end, I strongly believe that standards are a very clear way of delineating what we want children to know and be able to do.  But this can be centered on a play-based pedagogy.

Tucker:  Speaking of standards, how do you think about the staff quality in early childhood education systems?  Do you think that the people delivering early childhood education should have the same kinds of qualifications as compulsory school teachers?  How should countries set the standards for the people who will staff their early childhood education systems?

Kagan:  I actually think being an early childhood teacher takes more knowledge and energy than being a primary or secondary school teacher.  In addition to content, these teachers need to understand child development and child psychology, and they have to deal with parents, so they really need to be deeply knowledgeable about many domains of development.  I would love to see early childhood teachers globally trained to the level of primary and secondary teachers.  But I also think that the strategies used to train primary and secondary teachers are not necessarily relevant to early childhood teachers.  For early childhood teachers, we need to use interactive technology, reflective practice, and competency-based assessments.  I am really hoping for new, very inventive approaches to teacher professional education and development.  I believe that this learning should be ongoing, and I am a big proponent of peer learning and reflective practice.  I don’t think many professional teacher training programs have those qualities yet.

Tucker:  Do you see significant differences in national approaches to early childhood education in East Asia, Australasia and Europe?

Kagan:  Two decades ago, I would have said yes.  A decade ago, I would have said maybe.  Now, I am seeing much more agreement.  In some countries, under different political regimes than those now in place, there was a tendency to educate young children for performances, and a preference for heavily didactic techniques.  But the changes in Asia, and the countries in the former Soviet Union, as well as increased access to information through the new media, have led to a much more universal acceptance of theories of early childhood pedagogy that support play as an approach to instruction.

Tucker:  The countries that are behind the curve often have fewer high-quality people than they need.  How do countries train people at an affordable cost, on a clear timeline?

Kagan:  This is a universal dilemma that affects high-quality early childhood education around the globe.  I do think the use of interactive technology has to be marshaled more effectively.  We need to embrace technology as a normal part of teacher education.  At the micro level, for example, one of the things a training program could do is film teachers and use the film to help them reflect on their practice.  Using these types of technology can make training more widely accessible.  There are people in the United States who are working on this.  I think we can expect a lot of progress in this arena in the next couple of years.

Tucker:  I would like to share with you a modest analytical framework and ask you if it corresponds to your experience. Imagine three cells.  In the first is Western and Northern Europe, where women have been going into the workforce in large numbers for some time now.  These countries also have a larger-than-average proportion of national resources controlled by the government.  Those countries have been ahead of the curve worldwide with respect to early childhood education provision.  Another cell, East Asia, is at the other end of that dimension line.  In most of those countries, women have been slower to enter the paid workforce than in Europe and North America.  They are also cultures in which a woman’s status is measured more by her children’s success than in Europe and North America, so women spend more time with their children and provide the rough equivalent of what is provided in early childhood education programs in Europe.  And finally, I would characterize the United States and some other western-oriented societies as being somewhere in the middle, but having the strengths of neither.  They have neither the amount of personal support of the mother at home, nor the level of institutional support, so children are at a disadvantage with respect to both.  Do you think this is an accurate characterization of the relative positions of these three parts of the world with respect to early childhood education?

Kagan:  I think that holds a lot of water, but it does not account for third-world countries.  We have women all over the world who are “in the labor force,” but are not earning money, and that’s actually the majority of the world.  But I do think your analysis is right.

Tucker:  The Economist Intelligence Unit recently did a special report on early childhood education, a report in which you played a key role as an advisor.  What, in your view, is the significance of this report from the Economist?

Kagan:  I think the fact that the Economist Intelligence Unit elected to focus on early childhood education in the recent survey, Starting well: Benchmarking early education across the world, is nothing short of a landmark breakthrough.  They do not usually focus on these issues.  They did an excellent job with their analysis, it demonstrates the increased support for these issues, and it will bring this subject to a new audience.