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Professor Kagan Consults on Landmark Report Ranking Quality of Early Childhood Education in 45 countries

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Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood Policy and Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College

Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood Policy and Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College

While Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has led to sharp cuts in social spending, recognition of the value of early childhood education (ECE) is so strong in European countries that they likely will continue to offer the most affordable and high-quality preschool programs in the world. At the same time, high-quality early childhood education is not universally available in the United States, where standards of care and children’s development are uneven.

Those are two key findings of Starting well: Benchmarking early education across the world, a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) of the Economist magazine that ranks the United States 24th among 45 countries in the provision of early childhood services. 

Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood Policy and Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, served as the only U.S. expert consultant on the report. The EIU also consulted with Professor Christine Pascal at the Centre for Research in Early Childhood in the UK. (For access to the full report and to an overview of key findings, visit the Starting Well home page.)

 “The fact that the Economist elected to highlight early childhood globally marks a first for the field,” Kagan said. “It signals the importance of early childhood development to the social economy of countries.”

According to the report, released in late June, preschools can help to ensure that all children get a strong start in life, especially those from “low-income or disadvantaged households.” Preschool also “facilitates greater participation by women in the workforce, which bolsters economic growth,” the report says.

“The data are really incontrovertible,” Kagan says. “Three strands of research combine to support the importance of the early years. From neuro-scientific research, we understand the criticality of early brain development; from social science research, we know that high quality programs improve children’s readiness for school and life; and from econometric research, we know that high quality programs save society significant amounts of money over time. Early childhood contributes to creating the kinds of workforces that are going to be needed in the twenty-first century.”

The Lien Foundation, a Singapore-based philanthropic organization, commissioned the EIU to devise an index to rank preschool provision across 45 countries, including countries in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development and major emerging markets. The EIU interviewed experts around the world and reviewed existing research to assess major developments, obtain guidance on good practices, and highlight key issues to address. The experts found that Nordic countries provide the best preschools, with Finland, Sweden and Norway topping the Index, while European countries dominate the rankings, as universal preschool has steadily become the norm. The top eight countries, in descending order, are:  Finland, Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. New Zealand is ninth, and South Korea, tenth.

Among the key findings:

  • Many high-income countries – including the United States – rank poorly, despite wealth being a major factor in a country’s ability to deliver preschool services. Despite high average per-capita incomes, the United States (24), the United Arab Emirates (24), Canada (26), Australia (28), and Singapore (29), all place in the lower half of the Index. The researchers found that quality preschool programs are present in these countries but not available or affordable to all income levels. Minimum quality standards also vary in those countries.
  • A number of other countries, such as Chile (20) and the Czech Republic (17), have made significant efforts to ensure that preschool is available to all families, including instituting it as a legal right.
  • Public sector spending cuts pose a major threat to preschools.
  • Ensuring a high standard of teacher training and education, setting clear curriculum guidelines, and ensuring parental involvement all help to determine preschool education quality.

According to the report, written by James Watson and edited by Sudhir Vadaketh, much work is left to improve early childhood education globally.

“What this study also highlights is that no country has yet perfected its preschool provision. As all countries seek to develop a more highly skilled labor force that can better compete in a globalized knowledge-based economy, greater consideration of the role of preschool education is needed.”


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