This latest Pre-to-3 column looks at reactions to U.S. participation in a new global early education study. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
Educators and policymakers in the U.S. often cringe when new results from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) are released. Ranking the academic performance of 15-year-olds from industrialized countries throughout the world, the charts tend to show the U.S. in the middle of the pack and usually lead to speculation over why the American education system is not among the best in the world.
So, what might the reaction be next year when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which coordinates the PISA program, releases initial results from the International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study (IELS)?
What some are referring to as “baby PISA" will include a sample of 3,000 5-year-olds each in the U.S., England and Estonia. In addition to gathering data on children’s characteristics — such as gender, parents’ socioeconomic level and family makeup — the study will also collect data on children’s “home environment” and on the schools where they attend kindergarten. Researchers will measure children’s skills in literacy, numeracy and self-regulation.
Other assessments will focus on social-emotional skills, such as empathy and trust, and “pro-social” behavior, such as being cooperative and controlling impulses. Featuring illustrated characters Mia and Tom, the tablet-based activities being used for the study don’t involve any reading or writing. A field trial showed that children did not need prior experience with a tablet to follow the instructions and respond to the prompts — not surprising to the families of most young children.
"Early educators and school leaders will be able to learn more about both the cognitive and non-cognitive competencies U.S. children bring with them to primary school and how they compare with the skill profiles of 5-year-olds in other countries," Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), said in an email. NCES conducts PISA in the U.S.
The children’s parents and teachers will also complete surveys to provide a broader view.
“Collecting contextual information is critical for understanding how children’s skills develop and how they can be strengthened,” according to a summary of the study. “Children learn in different settings throughout their lives, including in their families, early-childhood education and care centers and schools.”
While the countries will receive scores in the various areas, officials say they plan to emphasize that the study is more of a “proof of concept” project and a way to test the assessment method rather than an effort to directly compare student outcomes in the three countries.
"The NCES IELS report will focus on issues salient to a U.S. audience and will undergo rigorous technical review to reduce the chance readers will misinterpret the results," Carr said. "The OECD will produce a separate report for each participating country describing student performance within the context of their respective education systems."
Were early education experts left 'in the dark?'
As with any assessment involving young children, however, those in the global early-childhood community initially raised questions about the purpose of the study. “The greatest concern from early-childhood scholars and practitioners is how the standardized assessment of young children across countries will account for cultural and historical contexts,” Global Childhood International, a nonprofit early education advocacy and training organization, wrote in a 2017 article.
Others argued that leading members of the early-childhood community were left “in the dark” as the study was developed.
“Why are the experts and the field’s knowledge marginalized?” questioned Helge Wasmuth, an associate education professor at Mercy College in New York, wrote in another 2017 commentary. “One needs to ask: Who really benefits from such a study?”
He also questioned whether social-emotional skills can be measured through digital media.
“Once again, we have opened Pandora’s box,” he wrote. “If more and more countries participate in this study — as I expect will happen in the long term — we will see a further narrowing and standardization of early-childhood education. There will be no room for culturally and contextually sensitive comparison and discourse.”
Concerns about the study have not dropped off as release of the first results draws closer. “As the [study] progresses and we come to know more about it, the more we are struck by its superficiality and pointlessness, Peter Moss of the Institute of Education at University College London and Mathias Urban of Dublin City University in Ireland, wrote last fall, calling the project part of a “global web of measurement.”
But Rowena Phair, the project leader for the study, said OECD has "had a lot of engagement ... from education leaders and practitioners, including in the [early childhood education] sector, as well as policy advisors and policymakers, parents and others interested in children’s early development."
She added that "while there are undoubtedly a range of views on international education studies of this nature," the participating schools and early education centers have shown "high levels of support" for the project. "These education leaders and practitioners are keen to highlight the importance of children’s early years and bring an international focus to this issue," she said.
There are still, however, practical differences between early education in the U.S. and the education systems that exist in many other parts of the world. Sharon Lynn Kagan, an early childhood education professor at Teachers College at Columbia University and an adjunct professor at the Yale University Child Study Center, has been documenting many of these differences in a National Center on Education and the Economy study that includes both the U.S. and England.
“Most countries are more like our states,” W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, added in an email. The findings, he said, would provide a “national snapshot” but might be less useful for influencing policy and practice. “We have no national [early-childhood education] policy, and with 50 very different policy regimes, it will be hard for any one of them to take lessons.”