A new report, based on analysis of six countries with highly effective comprehensive early childhood education and care systems, distills essential principles and core elements for enabling other nations to upgrade or create their own systems with similar success.
Drawing on lessons from Australia, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, the report “seeks to affect social change in scores of nations,” says principal investigator Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College, Columbia University. “The goal is to catalyze action.”
Kagan adds that the report is particularly “designed to take lessons from other countries and improve services in the United States,” where the latter are “scattershot and inconsistent” compromising quality, equity, sustainability and efficiency. “We are positing strategies that we think can be done here, with adaptations for the uniquely American context.”
How the U.S. (Doesn't) Stack Up
Titled “The Early Advantage: Building Systems that Work with Young Children – International Insights from Innovative Early Childhood Systems,” the report was released last week at a symposium in Washington, D.C. hosted by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE). It is the companion piece to an earlier report that provided an in-depth look at the early childhood systems of each of the six countries.
Kagan, one of the world’s leading authorities on early childhood policy, is Teachers College’s Virginia & Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy, and co-director of its National Center for Children and Families (NCCF).
[Listen to a podcast of Kagan discussing the report’s findings.]
Focus on Strategy
Bringing about social change on such a scale, Kagan notes, requires three elements first posited by her mentor, the late U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond, who spearheaded America’s successful antismoking campaign: a knowledge base, political will and social strategy. The new report focuses on social strategy, because the United States and many other nations have made the least progress on that front. “We now have a pre-k movement, which is wonderful for many children, but not all of these programs are high-quality,” Kagan says. “In the frenzy to do right by young children, the United States is enacting chaotic policies and services that, lacking coherent planning and structures, often compromise quality and efficiency.”
In the frenzy to do right by young children, the United States is enacting chaotic policies and services that, lacking coherent planning and structures, often compromise quality and efficiency.
Sharon Lynn Kagan
The new report offers three headline lessons from the six countries in the study.
First, says Kagan, who has advised scores of nations on setting early childhood learning and development standards, “context contours policy” – that is, what works in one country may not in another. But there are important lessons from each country that have immediate salience for the USA.
Second, however, all six countries have a comprehensive approach. “All these countries offer far more services than we do in the United States.”
All these countries offer far more services than we do in the United States...They don’t develop policies independent of each other. Rather, they develop a policy, like a national curriculum, and they use it to drive their accountability efforts, their funding efforts, and their governance efforts.
Sharon Lynn Kagan
And third, all six nations are attentive to what Kagan calls “policy synergy”: “They don’t develop policies independent of each other. Rather, they develop a policy, like a national curriculum, and they use it to drive their accountability efforts, their funding efforts, and their governance efforts.”
The six countries were selected based on a combination of their high rankings on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and high scores on a composite measure of early childhood education and care quality based on Starting Well, a 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit report. Within this top tier, Kagan picked countries that showed a mix of approaches with respect to everything from the public/private funding mix to social welfare and curricular philosophies. South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, and England were among the topmost performers; Australia was a notch below, but its mix of market and state approaches usefully resembled that of the United States. Australia also has a comprehensive approach to quality, with diversity at its heart.
The variation in practices and philosophies among the six countries is wide-ranging, and Kagan believes that is entirely appropriate. In Finland, for instance, “the moment you become pregnant you get a big box that contains all kinds of materials to help you through your pregnancy,” she says. Families there also benefit from robust maternal and paternal leave, community based services, and “drop-in services with no stigma attached.”
Beyond this, all six of the countries in the study look across the development spectrum, Kagan says, beginning prenatally and with abundant parenting supports. All make provision for infants and toddlers and “provide rich services for three- and four-year old children.” All focus on helping families make the big transition from pre-school to kindergarten, and “comprehensive health benefits are rather routine.”
Lessons for the U.S.
With this rich comparative knowledge base, how should policy-makers in the United States (or any other country) proceed? Kagan and colleagues offer a “repertoire of ideas” rather than a how-to recipe, arguing that contextually devised and contoured solutions are essential. More specifically, they break down the challenge into five core pillars, all essential to a successful social strategy:
- Strong policy foundations. “All six countries are fairly stable, they have contexts that are adaptive, and they think about policies that apply transcendentally to all programs,” Kagan says. This contrasts with the United States, where federally-organized Head Start and assorted state, local, public and private approaches operate in parallel but rarely in concert.
- Funding and governance. All countries have adopted approaches to financing that are consisted with their context. So in Finland, with its strong social welfare system, all funding is public. In contrast, in the Asian countries, there is considerable private-sector funding for direct services while public money is used to support the operational infrastructure that provides strong monitoring and intense quality improvement efforts. Moreover, Kagan notes that all six countries in the study have a clear governance structure, with some having centralized federal agencies responsible for young children. In the United States, “we could be a lot more innovative in our approaches to funding and governance,” Kagan says.
- The human factor. By different methods, each country is highly attentive to workforce development and family engagement. Some focus on teacher competencies – either instead of, or in concert with, a bachelor’s degree, for instance. “We’ve got a lot that we can learn about competency-based approaches to early childhood that could deliver high-quality services,” Kagan says.
- Pedagogy. Attention to what gets taught and how is very high in all six countries. “All of them acknowledge the importance of play and active involvement as a means of provoking children’s curiosity, and all countries have comprehensive frameworks that help improve pedagogy.
- Data. “All the study countries use data more effectively than we do,” Kagan says, a practice that enables rigorous, continual improvement. Moreover, she notes, “all have national commitments to research enterprises that focus on early childhood, so there is a corpus for regenerating the knowledge base in perpetuity.”
- time, because system-building of any kind is slow work;
- structures, meaning that no matter the administrative model, there must be a clear structural design;
- multiplicity of possible approaches and their trade-offs; and
- people, meaning children, those who teach and care for them, and parents; and for national culture and context.
While countries seeking to build comprehensive early childhood education and care systems will apply these approaches in different measure, all must commit to a guiding ethos of respect, Kagan argues. Specifically efforts must reflect respect for:
“Countries, armed with their distinct values, commitments, and histories, should be regarded as unique and capable of contouring their own early childhood services to their contexts,” Kagan writes.
Kagan hopes the report will have a threefold impact in the United States: stimulating American policy-makers to find and scale up what is already working best here; providing a litmus test for assessing new proposals by local leaders and national political candidates; and forcing researchers and advocates to face “inconvenient truths” in the field. In particular, the country needs to rethink its default stance of looking to the government for solutions in a culture where public-private hybrids are becoming more prevalent and are often more effective.
We have a very unique social history. From age five on, we have the most comprehensive system of education in the world, but for children just a few months younger we don’t feel a social obligation.
Sharon Lynn Kagan
Ultimately, Kagan says, the United States faces a paradox. “We have a very unique social history. From age five on, we have the most comprehensive system of education in the world, but for children just a few months younger we don’t feel a social obligation.”
In a presentation she has given on her findings, Kagan outlines a series of “inconvenient truths” about the United States. The country ranks 11th globally in investment in pre-primary education as a percentage of government expenditures on education; 22nd in presence of well-defined quality guidelines to cover basis early childhood education and care needs; and 31st on availability of preschool for family.
Kagan also argues that America also needs to confront its own “inconvenient presumptions”: for example, that it is the government’s responsibility to fully funded early childhood education and care when we know “in our hearts and minds that the government alone will never be able to fund the levels of quality and equity we need.”
Most damning of all is her description of America’s “inconvenient context” – that:
- Under the “truth” of democracy, a partisan system of governance reigns.
- Under the “truth” of freedom and justice, slavery, Jim Crow, racism, sexism, and a host of other “isms” persist.
- Under the “truth” of loving children and honoring families, the USA fails miserably.
“The ending of the book says, ‘America, wake up’ It does really come down to making our nation more committed and more respectful of the importance of the early years.” – Siddhartha Mitter
Kagan’s co-editor on the report was Eva Landsberg, Research Assistant at NCCF. Her co-investigators in the six countries were:
Kathy Sylva (England), Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Oxford;
Nirmala Rao (Hong Kong), Serena H.C. Yang Professor in Early Childhood Development and Education;
Kristiina Kumpulainen (Finland), Professor of Education and Vice Dean for research at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki;
Mugyeong Moon (The Republic of Korea), Director of Policy Research Team and also Director of Trend Analysis and International Cooperation Team of the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education;
Rebecca Bull (Singapore), Professor of Numeracy Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
In Australia, the original investigator, Colette Tayler, Chair of Early Childhood Education and Care, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the University of Melbourne passed away midway through the study, and the Australia work was completed by Bridget Healey and Tricia Eadie.