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Time to change how we think about early education, international study finds

October 9, 2018
Lillian Mongeau
The Hechninger Report

The U.S. could learn a lot about early education from our international counterparts. That’s the conclusion of a comprehensive, multi-year study of six early education systems that are beating the U.S. on money spent per child, percentage of children enrolled and math achievement at age 15.

The project, published in September as a book called “The Early Advantage: Early Childhood Systems that Lead by Example,” takes a deep look at services for young children in Australia, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore. The work was led by Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Yale University. (The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College.) The study was funded by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank focused on the connection between education and economics.

“There are incredible lessons from these other countries,” Kagan said. The lessons “manifest themselves not only in what we can do but in how we actually think about young children and the services for them.”

In the U.S., caring for young children has long been considered the responsibility of individual families, not the government. With the exception of a few times in history where it was considered a national priority to bring women into the workforce temporarily, publicly funded child care has remained low on the list of programs receiving federal dollars. The federal money that is spent, mostly on preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds living in poverty (through programs like Head Start) and on helping states provide subsidized child care, is generally considered assistance for families struggling to make ends meet.

“For many countries, investments in young children are the mark of prudent thinking and wise resource allocation,” Kagan writes, “often approaching the top of the list of requisite investments.”

Not so in the U.S., where both per child spending and total pre-primary enrollment lag far behind other well-to-do nations.

“It really goes back to founding fathers,” Kagan said. “We were established to escape government tyranny. It’s always been a hands-off mentality.”