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The link between early childhood education and PISA scores

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There’s an interesting connection between early childhood education and the results released last week from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, on which American 15-year-old students performed about average in reading, math and science among some 65 countries and school systems. Here to explain is Kris Perry , executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for comprehensive, high-quality early childhood education systems, programs and supports.

By Kris Perry

Buried under the  headlines of the last week  about the newly released Program for International Student Assessment results — which showed American 15-year-old students nowhere near the top on the 2012 math, reading and science tests, is an interesting bit of data. It’s the connection between early childhood education and the top-performing PISA nations.

PISA is given by an organization called the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is made up of 34 countries, including the United States, China, Germany and Japan. In the majority of OECD countries, more than three quarters (79%) of 4-year olds are enrolled in early childhood education programs. And according tothe report on 2012 PISA scores released last week, across OECD countries, students who attended early childhood programs performed better—a full year ahead of their peers.

The answer is clear: a serious focus on the education and health of children from birth to age 5, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can lay the foundation for achievement in school, college, career and life.

One of the OECD’s primary recommendations last week was for countries to increase investments in early learning for disadvantaged children, with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría repeatedly returning to this conclusion. Domestic policy leaders such as Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, agreed.

Here’s where some of the countries who did well on PISA 2012 stand on early education:

SHANGHAI and HONG KONG: Again at the top of the PISA ratings (by far), Shanghai’s key focuses has been inching towards universal access for all students – from early childhood through primary school. Meanwhile, Hong Kong, which also came out near the top, has preschools that are of far higher quality than those in the United States, a key to the lasting education and economic impacts of these programs. Hong Kong comes in at No. 11 on the Economist’s Starting Well Quality Index, while the United States trails at No. 22.  However, ensuring quality requires significant government support and even with two-thirds of children already in preschool centers across China, the Ministry of Education plans to provide universal access for one year of preschool and almost universal access for two years before primary school by 2020 – and Shanghai, in particular has been outpacing the rest of the nation.

SINGAPORE: Ranking second in math and in the top five for both reading and science, Singapore achieved almost universal access to preschool with governmental support. Ninety-nine percent of children in the first year of school have at least one year of pre-school in either a child care center or a kindergarten.

KOREA: For the third time in a row, receiving high marks in reading and mathematics, Korea’s education leaders understand that early participation is key to producing better outcomes. Korea has higher enrollment rates for children under the age of 3 than many other OECD countries and an above-average enrollment rate at age 3. The country has also focused on connecting its birth-5 education system by creating a parallel learning framework that connects child care programs with the nation’s preschool programs for children ages 3 to 5, helping to improve school readiness across the early learning continuum.

POLAND: Seeing one of the most impressive improvements of any nation in the 2012 PISA results, Poland has steadily increased the number of its students in early childhood programs. Pre-primary education for 5 year olds is now required as part of a government strategy to help children overcome educational disadvantage. As a result, early childhood education for 5 year olds increased by 33 percent between 2005 and 2011, compared with an average of  4 percent for OECD countries. Enrollment rates for 3- and 4-year-old children almost doubled since 2004, representing a 22 percent increase for 3 year olds and 26 percent for 4 yearolds. Half of all 3- to 5-year-old children are now enrolled in early learning programs.

Comparing our education system to other countries’ strategies is difficult, and the value of these comparisons is a common criticism of PISA itself. This new data presents one standard of measurement of academic gain for students at age 15. Nothing more – nothing less. Furthermore, the United States is one of the most diverse, heterogeneous countries in the world, as well as one of the largest, complicating education efforts. Still, 70 percent of voters have expressed support in surveys for investments in early childhood education, and in the face of gridlock in the U.S. Congress, states are coming up with their own innovative solutions.

A solid body of research has shown that investments in early childhood education pay real dividends socially and economically.  High-quality early childhood programs in the United States result in fewer referrals to special education programs, reduced grade repetition and increased high school graduation rates – advancements that save taxpayers money and provide a long-term boost to the economy.

New research from Professor James Heckman also shows that high quality early childhood education can improve the development of lifelong character and critical thinking skills – the skills employers need to fill the jobs of the future.

Implementing effective early childhood education requires policymakers and politicians to go beyond the traditional notions of formal education to understand that quality is defined by how we support children and families, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to set them up for success. Business leaders, law enforcement officials and now global leaders are calling for it. Economists and neuroscientists have proven it. Now, an important international education assessment is recommending it. What are we waiting for?