Early Education on the International Scene

January 27, 2012

Continuing its focus on the importance of early childhood education, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) held its high-level roundtable “Starting Strong: Implementing Policies for High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)” in Oslo, Norway this week. The OECD, a collaborative organization with 34 member nations, provides a forum for governments to share best practices and address common problems in a variety of areas.

Recognizing the impact of high-quality early learning, the OECD has had a special initiative focusing on early childhood and early care (ECEC) since 1996. Their “Starting Strong” initiative has collected data on policies, practices, and success across countries. The roundtable meeting, along with the release of a new publication, “Starting Strong III: A Quality Toolbox for Early Childhood Education and Care,” continued this legacy of international cooperation as nations try to protect crucial early learning investments during difficult financial times.

The roundtable featured invited guests from government, research, and advocacy throughout its member countries to focus on its three goals:

  • Focus attention on the economic and social importance of investing in high-quality early childhood education and care,
  • Highlight key policies and practices that can enhance investment in high-quality early childhood education and care in countries, and
  • Share perspectives and foster dialogue with, and among, stakeholders to promote understanding of the implementation challenges and how to address them.

Steve Barnett, director of NIEER, was a keynote speaker at the roundtable meeting and participated in a panel with other crucial ECEC stakeholders in the international community. Video footage can be found online, with Dr. Barnett’s address beginning at the 25:30 mark, and continuing into the panel at the 57-minute mark. The slides from his Oslo Benefits and Costs of ECEC presentation are available both from NIEER and on the OECD website alongside the video footage.

Norwegian Minister of Education Kristin Halvorsen gave a particularly striking speech (beginning at the 10-minute mark) in which she walked participants through the process of achieving high-quality early childhood education and care programs in Norway. Her argument was rooted in her experience as former Minister of Finance; that is, early childhood education is beneficial not only for the individual child but also for families that are better able to work and the economy that benefits from this. Her presentation slides are also available alongside the video footage of the event.

The complete Starting Strong III report is a 300-plus page tome addressing five policy levers utilized cross-nationally to improve quality in ECEC programs and ensure this crucial investment pays off. An interactive site guides stakeholders through these five levers, and well as the five “action areas” laid out below—this site is an incomparable tool for policymakers both stateside and in the international community.

Policy Levers

Setting out quality goals and regulations
Designing and implementing curriculum and standards
Improving workforce conditions, qualifications and training
Engaging families and communities
Setting out quality goals and regulations

Action Areas

Using research to inform policy and the public
Broadening perspectives through international comparison
Selecting a strategy option
Managing risks: Learning from other countries’ policy experiences
Reflecting on the current state of play

Steve Barnett and Ellen Frede (former co-director of NIEER) contributed to this report and its online materials, and NIEER’s research can be seen in a number of areas through the publication. Research briefs around each policy lever topic address the current body of knowledge on the topic, what is still unknown, and what the policy implications are in the field. NIEER’s contributions can particularly be seen in this brief on data monitoring and accountability.

The OECD hosts a plethora of material on ECEC in member nations. Much of NIEER’s research centers on early education funded by states, which reflect great diversity in resources, access, and quality. These differences are only magnified at the international level, offering a number of ideas that nations may wish to incorporate into their own programs. There is no one “right” model for early care and education; programs must be of high-quality, fit the needs of their community while being culturally responsive, and contribute to lasting gains. Cooperative efforts such as those launched by the OECD provide a crucial opportunity to share knowledge and ensure that all children are provided with quality early learning opportunities, contributing to an improved global economy.

–  Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


Lack of Economic Mobility Adds Urgency to The Pre-K Debates

January 11, 2012

Economic mobility is in the news of late thanks to Republican presidential hopefuls drawing attention to recent studies showing that Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. This comes as sobering news to many who persist in believing the U.S. is the land of utmost opportunity. Not so if you are at the bottom of the income scale, it turns out.

Brookings Institution research finds that 42 percent of children born in the bottom income quintile in the U.S. stay there as adults and only six percent of them reach the top quintile. Meanwhile, a policy brief just out from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project finds that in the U.S., there is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational and socio-emotional outcomes than in any of the other countries studied. In other words, who your parents are counts for more here than in other countries studied when it comes to moving up the ladder. Not surprisingly, another key finding is that exposure to preschool can have lasting positive effects on economic disparities, particularly for low- and middle-income children.

Coinciding with all this is the arrival of a new book The Pre-K Debates: Current Controversies and Issues. Edited by Edward Zigler and Walter Gilliam of Yale University and myself, it calls on more than three dozen leaders in the various fields associated with early education to argue the issues surrounding the hottest debates.  Chief among them — and first in line in the book — is the policy question of whether public preschool education should be made available to all children or only those who are economically disadvantaged.

I argue in favor of making public pre-K available to all children for four reasons:

  1. Universal preschool programs will reach a significantly greater percentage of low-income children than has been the case with targeted programs these last 40-plus years.
  2. Universal programs produce larger educational gains for disadvantaged kids.
  3. Children from middle-income families also benefit and, numerically speaking, they account for most of the nation’s problems with inadequate school readiness and school failure.
  4. Universal pre-K is likely to yield a larger net economic benefit to the nation.

David Lawrence Jr., president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Florida puts forth similar arguments for a universal approach, adding that outside the ivory tower or government no one thinks in terms of means testing and it is never a good strategy to divide Americans. Lawrence led the fight for Florida’s universal pre-K program and, while he calls it nowhere near good enough, those familiar with Lawrence know better than to doubt his dedication to program improvement.

Joining us on the pro-universal side of the debate are Sharon Lynn Kagan and Joyce Friedlander at Columbia University. They argue that all young children have a right to high-quality preschool education plus any additional health or social services needed to get children off to a good start in school. Their approach, termed “universal plus, ” represents a substantial shift in mindset away from the targeted services strategy that most state and federal programs have pursued in recent decades.  My co-editor Ed Zigler has made much the same case over the years in advocating for his School of the 21st Century.

The proponents of targeted services are predominantly economists like me. James J. Heckman, University of Chicago, proposes developing measures of risky family environments to facilitate targeting programs to the most disadvantaged kids. He recommends providing those families with home-visiting programs such as the Nurse-Family partnership as well as high-quality pre-K.

Art Rolnick at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Rob Grunewald, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis favor targeting because the highest returns on the public’s investment in pre-K come from programs for the disadvantaged. They acknowledge the substantial difficulties targeting has had in identifying and serving those who qualify and recommend redoubling those efforts by way of means testing.

Finally, sociologist Bruce Fuller of the University of California, Berkeley, cautions against pursuing a policy of universal preschool because it would, in his estimation, squander scarce public dollars and likely widen gaps in early learning because well-heeled communities would “top up” private investment in preschool with public funds and then recruit the most skilled teachers. Viewed through Fuller’s lens, universal pre-K would work to the disadvantage of disadvantaged kids.

Having studied pre-K in this country and abroad for the past 30 years, I have more than a little difficulty embracing the arguments of my colleagues on the anti-universal side of the debate.  None of the opponents has offered a practical solution to the targeting problem.  In Europe both average test scores and inequality in test scores decline as enrollment moves past our levels in the U.S. toward 100 percent.  In the U.S. we have pursued a targeted approach since the early 1960s and still don’t reach half the children in poverty with even modest programs.  And most private sector programs available to the beleaguered middle class fall far short of providing quality education, a problem that Quality Rating Systems will not fix.  Forty years of failure should be enough to convince my economist colleagues that something must be wrong with their assumptions. On purely practical grounds, I think it is about time we chart a new course.

In future posts, we’ll address other issues of contention from The Pre-K Debates.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER


Wide-reaching Implications: Assessments of the Very Young

January 4, 2012

Related Reading

Multifaceted Assessment for Early Childhood Education

Robert J. Wright

SAGE Publications, Inc.

Thousand Oaks, CA

352 pages, ISBN 978-1-41297-015-0, $49.95

Published in 2010, this book provides educators, in particular pre-service teachers, with a broad understanding of current practices in early childhood assessment. The author argues that “there has never been a time when it is more important for early childhood educators to have an understanding of educational assessment and measurement” (p. xix), considering educational accountability and legislation mandating early identification of children with special needs. Very important decisions are increasingly being made based on the results of educational assessments, such as about special needs support allocation, changes in teacher salaries, and early childhood center funding and closings. This book is a timely addition to existing teacher preparation resources.

The content coverage is broad and relevant to current practice and issues in early assessment, ranging from sections on teacher-created assessments and standardized tools to descriptions of assessments for children from birth through kindergarten and older. Throughout the book, the author provides detailed real-world examples of each topic. For instance, on pages 89-90, there is an example of a time-stamped anecdote from a kindergarten observation, describing the challenging behavior of a child who does not want to share a ball with other children on the playground and two different adults’ responses to that behavior. This example is a good one because it is very realistic, so that pre-service teachers in placements could easily imagine this scenario happening in a school playground and could likely relate it to some prior experience.

The book also covers some history of early childhood and assessment, and major issues related to assessment. For example, chapter 10 is on report cards, and reporting to parents, and this chapter covers the potential impacts of reporting children’s performance in report cards on the development of their self-esteem.

Multifaceted Assessment for Early Childhood Education is divided into five parts: 1) Background, current issues, and interpretation of assessments in early education; 2) Formative and summative assessments and tests; 3) Individual screening measures and full assessments; 4) Parent communication and special needs children; and 5) Evaluation of early childhood programs and schools. Each part is further subdivided into chapters, for a total of 13 chapters.

There are three features of the text that serve as advanced organizers: Section descriptions, Introduction and Themes, and Learning Goals. The section descriptions are one-page explanations preceding each part that outline the contents of the upcoming section. Similarly, the introduction and themes outline the content of the upcoming chapters. At the start of each chapter, the learning goals are described in sequential order.

Overall, Multifaceted Assessment for Early Childhood Education provides a complete overview of relevant, current issues in the field. The book is well-organized and could be an excellent learning tool for pre-service teachers. It is critical that pre-service teachers learn about and understand the uses and interpretations of assessments, as they prepare to enter a field in which assessment will continue to have wide-reaching implications for years to come.

– Reviewed by Alissa A. Lange, Ph.D.

Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

For more about early childhood education assessments, check out NIEER’s 2004 policy brief, Preschool Assessment: A Guide to Developing a Balanced Approach, by Ann S. Epstein, Lawrence J. Schweinhart, Andrea DeBruin-Parecki, and Kenneth B. Robin.


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