June 25, 2019
Contrary to American exceptionalism, research shows that the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in early childhood education and care. This shortcoming is due to myriad factors including inadequate investment, a lack of professionalization and respect for the field, and a chasm in data collection and use. Our failures are derived from and indicative of uncomfortable truths in the American context that have upheld the status quo, including racism, sexism, and a failure to commit to the most vulnerable group among us, children.
Transforming this system will require leveraging the first two of Julius Richmond’s accelerants to change, a well-researched knowledge base and political and public will, in order to develop the third, a codified social strategy. Sharon Lynn Kagan and her colleagues equip readers with a strong knowledge base in the first publication of the two-book series, The Early Advantage 1. This first volume describes the landscape of six exemplary international early childhood education and care (ECEC) systems and the components that enabled their success.
Chosen countries earned high mathematics scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) or ranked highly on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s four criteria for quality ECEC systems. Using a cross-mapping analysis of these two data sets, six countries were selected for the study: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Finland, England, and Australia.
Over the course of several years, researchers collected data on the six countries’ ECEC systems and conducted dozens of interviews with policymakers, service providers, and government officials. As this rich content was synthesized into The Early Advantage 2, researchers arrived at five pillars and fifteen building blocks evident in each of the systems. The five pillars are: a strong policy foundation; comprehensive services, funding, and governance; knowledgeable and supported teachers and families; informed, individualized, and continuous pedagogy; and data to drive improvement. Each component enhances the other, and effective ECEC systems require synergy between all of the pillars and building blocks.
Using these pillars and building blocks, each of the six countries illuminated is serving young children and families in a much more comprehensive and direct manner than the United States. Their ECEC systems are largely dependent upon the sociocultural contexts in which they exist, whether it be Asian, Nordic, or Anglo. As Kagan stated at the Early Advantage 2 release event, “High quality is different in all of these countries, contoured to their context.” So while examining the promising practices highlighted below, “We, as a nation, need to be very respectful of our uniquely American context.”
According to Kagan, “Every single country has a national framework that emphasizes play-based strategies.” These frameworks feature a child-centered curriculum with learning alignment from birth through primary school and serve as guides for teacher preparation programs. Hong Kong’s unique blend of Western and Chinese ideologies have influenced their ECEC framework. While maintaining respect for teachers as academic leaders, Hong Kong’s curriculum includes free exploration and integrated themes that connect to children’s everyday lives. Their Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide features guidance for instructional planning, professional development for educators, and strategies to meet childrens’ individual needs.
In Finland, the National Core Curriculum acts as the basis for early education, but is far from prescriptive. Municipalities have the freedom to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of their local families, while educators are given license to adjust instruction to meet students’ needs. This pedagogy of individualization is exemplified in the use of Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which are created for all children with input from teachers, children, and guardians, and revisited throughout the year.
Study countries rely on data to drive program improvement, to provide formative assessments on children’s development, and to share information with the families and the public. England’s highly regulated system requires mandatory program inspections at least once every four years. These inspection reports are popular among parents, since parent choice is emphasized in the system, as well as among providers aiming to improve their services. Additionally, the government assesses all children at ages two and five through observations and interviews with parents and providers. The first screening is intended to diagnose developmental delays, allowing for early intervention when it will be most effective. The second screening is used to create a profile that will follow the child through their academic career.
All of the countries portrayed in the study offer comprehensive services to children and families. In Australia, the publicly funded universal health care system provides essential prenatal care to expectant mothers, as well as early parenting classes and birthing support. The government’s Nurse-Family Partnership Program sends nurses to support Indigenous women during pregnancy and the first two years of their child’s life. Government-funded parental leave allows eligible primary caregivers to take 18 weeks of paid leave and an additional 12 months of unpaid but protected leave to spend with their new babies. Paid family leave is one elemental facet of ECEC systems in which the United States is falling far behind.
Study countries hybridize public and private funding, allowing for greater access to high quality ECEC services. In Singapore, families are valued as the core of society. The commitment to families’ well-being was demonstrated in 2012 and 2017 when the government doubled its funding to ECEC twice, to reach $1.2 billion by 2023. Families can access these investments through subsidies, some of which are both universally available, and others which are targeted towards lower- and middle-income families. Subsidies are also administered to providers to maintain affordability for families and to ECEC professionals for continuing education.
In South Korea, subsidies are offered to all families with children from birth through age five, regardless of income. They utilize a primarily demand-side approach, providing “i(child)-Happiness Cards” vouchers to families who apply. Vouchers cover the entire cost of full-day child care for children ages 0-2 years-old and $200 per month for children ages three- to five-years-old to cover half-day care. Families may pay additional costs to cover full-day pre-K services and the often expensive private kindergartens.
Though many of these systems were inspired by Head Start and research from the United States, our systemic gains have stalled. Americans must look outward to reflect on lessons from strong international ECEC systems and inward to confront the truths that have prevented us from achieving similar success. Kagan concluded, “Above all, we plead for respect for our American context, for the rich diversity of our population, and yes, even for our abysmally quirky, inchoate government and policy structures. Inconvenient though they may be, they are our very rich truths, the truths which must propel us forward as we work, plan, and go forward together.”
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