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Early Bird: An Early Education Update

November 1, 2017
Natalie Ritchie
CHILD magazine (Australia)

At the Early Start Conference at the University of Wollongong in September, early learning researchers from around the world shared their latest findings. A leader in the field, the University’s Early Start Centre ( houses a Discovery Space indoor/outdoor play centre open to the public, community programs, early childhood professionals’ training, and scientific research all under one roof.

Here, two early education experts from the conference give us their take on the state of early learning today.

Professor W. Steven Barnett is Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey, U.S. He is an internationally recognised expert in the long-term benefits of early childhood education.

Is quality pre-school all that advantageous to children from stable, happy families, or is it really only of significant help to kids from disadvantage?

Every child can benefit and the vast majority of children from high-income families (happy or not) already attend for multiple years in every developed country and in much of the developing world. How much they benefi t depends on their individual needs.

For some, it enhances their quality of life but probably has modest impact on their future. For others, who have learning diffi culties or face personal or familial challenges such as parents with depression, there also can be important long-term impacts on school and social success.

In the United States, it is now well documented that most of the inequality in achievement is developed before children enter public education at age five. Pre-school education has been found to reduce grade repetition and the need for special education, and to raise test scores and earnings, boost the level of later educational attainment, and improve health.

What large-scale early education programs have had success?

A large body of evidence suggests that public provision of quality pre-school education can be an effective way to enhance the lives of children in disadvantaged families, and to decrease inequality in educational, economic, and social outcomes. However, in the United States, there are few well-documented examples of large-scale successes, along with some well-known failures. My colleagues and I maintain that most public programs fail to invest sufficiently in the necessary quality and intensity to reproduce either the experiences or outcomes of successful models.

One program that did make sufficient investment is New Jersey’s Abbott pre-school system. It came about in response to a 1998 law suit known as Abbott v Burke, where the plaintiffs argued that inequality in educational opportunity in 31 low-wealth school districts was so extreme that it violated the New Jersey constitution. In these 31 ‘Abbott’ school districts, about 70 percent of children were from low-income families, and 77 percent were black or Hispanic.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to fund high-quality universal pre-school education to all children from age three in these 31 communities. A Department of Education team specifi ed the following policies to support high quality: a teacher with a fouryear degree and a teaching certifi cate in early childhood education, plus an assistant for each class of 15 children; a developmentally appropriate curriculum; adequate facilities; and transportation, health, and other related services. Staff had specialisations in language and literacy, math and science, challenging behaviours, special education, community and parent engagement, assessment, and coaching and professional development. The system was introduced in the 2002-03 school year.

The Abbott system had a positive impact that persisted through the fi rst six grades of school. Near the end of the child’s primary school years, one year of the Abbott preschool program was estimated to reduce the achievement gap for disadvantaged children by about 15 percent, and two years were estimated to produce effects equivalent to 20 to 40 percent of the achievement gap. In addition, there were substantial reductions in grade repetition and special education, which are both indicators that the child may not complete secondary school. Today, nearly all children in the Abbott districts attend pre-school prior to attending public kindergarten, and the vast majority attends for two years.

A noteworthy feature of the Abbott system is its focus on good teaching. Teachers were assisted to obtain degrees and training in early childhood education. Those who did were given equal pay with public school teachers – which doubled their salaries compared to the private sector they had been in. Abbott districts employ a coach for every 17 to 20 preschool teachers to conduct annual observations of all pre-school classrooms. The coaches’ primary responsibility is to engage teachers in a cycle of refl ective evaluation, with individualised plans to help each teacher refi ne his or her practice.

If you could improve early childcare tomorrow, what would you do? I would: • set high expectations for children’s learning and development and for teachers’ practice • adopt a curriculum that includes rich content • provide regular in-class coaching of teachers to improve their practice • support teachers and centre directors with adequate salaries • provide the most intensive, highest quality services to the most disadvantaged children.