Pre-to-3: What can countries with high-performing early-childhood systems teach the US?
In a new book, a leading researcher details lessons learned from an examination of policies and programs for young children in countries including Australia, Finland and Singapore
This latest Pre-to-3 column focuses on some of the key findings from an international study on leading early-childhood education systems. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
Strict monitoring and inspection systems in the United Kingdom, an efficient use of funding in South Korea, and a strong emphasis on transition in Finland are a few of the elements that stand out in a new examination of how other countries have structured their early learning systems.
Led by Sharon Lynn Kagan, an early childhood education professor at Teachers College and an adjunct professor at the Yale University Child Study Center, the research is compiled in "The Early Advantage 1: Early Childhood Systems That Lead By Example," the first of two publications that will describe the lessons learned and the implications for the U.S.
As part of its work on the top-performing education systems in the world, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) commissioned Kagan and a team of investigators in each country to conduct the study “in the hopes that countries around the world would profit from that research,” NCEE President and CEO Marc Tucker said this week during a webinar to introduce the first book.
One overarching lesson from the case studies, which also included Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, is that historical and social context influences the type of programs and services available for young children and their families. In the U.S., for example, that means dedication to the principles of independence, localism and entrepreneurialism — and a mindset that government only steps in “when families fail” — have shaped the country's mixture of public and private programs, Kagan said.
But in Finland, Kagan and the other researchers identified what she called a Nordic approach, which included a greater “public commitment” to funding for early learning but less of a focus on monitoring and oversight. And in Asian countries, declining birthrates have led to policies, in Singapore for example, that create incentives for having children and provide subsidies for early care and education.
“These contexts vary, and they vary significantly,” Kagan said during the webinar, “and they influence what countries are doing for young children.”
Kagan defines a system as having both services — ranging from paid family leave to preschool — and a strong infrastructure to support those programs, such as financing mechanisms, governance, data systems and professional development.
She also provided comparisons of where the U.S. currently ranks on key early-childhood education indicators. In the area of quality — measured via aspects such as teacher-staff ratios, curriculum guidelines, and health and safety requirements — the U.S. sits in about the middle of a list of 46 countries, according to a paper from the World Bank. But the U.S. ranks lower on the availability of preschool, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“If I were a time traveler looking backward, we’ve made some progress,” Kagan said, but added that the U.S. is still not doing “as well as we could.”
The second of the two books, expected in the spring, will provide lessons from all of the countries studied, examples of strong systems from the U.S. and recommendations, Kagan said, of “how things could and might be done.”
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