The issue of early childhood education is in the news in the United States, where Education Week's Quality Counts 2007 report has just been released. Each year the report explores state policies for improving kindergarten to Year 12 education. This issueâ€”From cradle to career: Connecting American education from birth through adulthoodâ€”also pays special attention to the importance of pre-school education.
Read selections from Quality counts 2007: From cradle to career: Connecting American education from birth through adulthood online.
Discussion about early childhood education has also included the possibility of introducing pre-kindergarten grading. Since it is unlikely that the US will introduce a nationwide, mandatory pre-kindergarten year (pre-k), discussion relating to the Quality Counts report has raised calls for investment from state and private sources, particularly to assist the children of poorer families.
Early childhood education web discussion
Education Weekly have published the transcript of a recent web discussion concerning the topic of pre-kindergarten grading and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' investment in early child education.
The complete transcript is available: Quality counts 2007: A discussion about early-childhood education.
The argument for pre-kindergarten standards
During the web chat, Rob Grunewal, associate economist at the Minneapolis bank, summarised the complicated argument around early childhood grading:
â€˜Concerns have been raised about using, or not using, child outcome measures. On one hand, some ECD [early childhood development] professionals have raised concerns about tying child outcomes to program funding or financial incentives. They point out that it's difficult to measure the progress of a child's development since it is complex and influenced by environments other than the ECD program, particularly the child's home environment. On the other hand, some prospective funders and policymakers have raised concerns over how they can know whether an ECD program is achieving desired results. They want to be sure their money and public funds that they advocate for are spent productively.'
Arthur J. Rolnick, senior vice president, said that Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' reason for supporting early childhood education, was due to:
â€˜â€¦ our concern about long-term economic growth and its dependence on the development of human capital. Economic research suggests that a key element of sustainable economic growth is the development of human capital. Research shows that investments in early childhood development have the highest return.'
Grunewal added that their approach:
â€˜â€¦ is focused on parent involvement starting with parent mentorsâ€”prenatalâ€”and ECD scholarships for three and four year olds. Scholarships can only be used at high-quality programs.'
Necessity for research
Sara Watson, senior officer of state policy initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts, who published the Quality Counts report, also participated in the web discussion, pointing out that, in 2006, 31 US states increased funding for pre-kindergarten education by over US$450 million.
In order to encourage more financial backing, she said:
â€˜â€¦ we need to talk about early childhood as an investment, we need more business leaders as champions for early education, and we need to have the data that clearly document the economic returns to proven programs.'
She stated that other businesses should follow Minneapolis' model and champion early education, but acknowledged that this outcome would be unlikely at the present, without data that proves an economic return. Watson added that there were certain reports available (such as The economic promise of investing in high-quality preschool which indicate that a pre-k year could boost economic growth by 3.5 per cent by 2080) but more statistics were necessary to sway opinion.
There are several US studies currently under way, in relation to economic returns for state governments investing in early childhood education, run by pre[k]now and the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Read The economic promise of investing in high-quality preschool: Using early education to improve economic growth and the fiscal sustainability of states and the nation
Visit the pre[k]now website.
Visit the National Institute for Early Education Research website.
Challenging contemporary attitudes
In addition to reducing the number of uneducated children, the arguments for grading and state-based funding are also related to the gap in recognitionâ€”and remunerationâ€”between early childhood educators and school teachers, an issue which has also been frequently in Australian news recently.
Rob Grunewald said, in regard to Minneapolis' bank's funding of scholarships for use in high-quality programs:
â€˜By empowering at-risk parents this way we think the market will respond by providing the high-quality programs and there will be a new appreciation, respect, and higher salaries for early educators.'
Sara Watson's view is that:
â€˜State and local systems can help bridge this divide by, for example:
- offering pay, benefits and a career ladder to qualified pre-k teachers comparable to those for k–12
- setting up rigorous professional development opportunities and requirements
- recognizing the best pre-k teachers right alongside the best k–12 teachers.'
Read the complete transcript of Quality counts 2007: A discussion about early-childhood education.
State of Australia's early childhood education
Australia's national funding of early childhood care and education services have recently been criticised in two influential reports.
The September 2006 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Starting Strong II report highlighted that Australia was spending less than all other first-world countries on preschool and that our kindergarten teachers are the worst paid and least trained.
In November 2006, The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) released a report which found the state of national early childhood care and education services to be â€˜insufficient, fragmented, under funded and inconsistent'.
Early Childhood Australia's position
These criticisms reflect concerns expressed in the Early Childhood Australia's 2005–06 Annual Report:
â€˜A major theme of Early Childhood Australia's advocacy in 2006 with government, key officials and in the media has been to argue for policy-makers to accept the implications of evidence which shows that improving the structural quality of children's services is fundamental to good outcomes for children â€¦ Structural quality in children's services leads to warm, sensitive, stimulating and consistent provider–child interactions.'
â€˜Some of the issues that are currently facing the early years of schools are similar to those facing the birth-to-five age group. Specialist early childhood qualifications underwrite effective early childhood leadership and appropriate pedagogy in the first year of schools in the same way as they do for birth to five-year-olds.'
The ECA 2005–06 Annual Report (PDF) is available online.
Early Childhood Australia's chief executive officer Pam Cahir spoke at the Country Children's Services Association of NSW 2006 conference, on the value to services in Australia of taking a â€˜systems approach'. She concluded emphasising that â€˜We have to take charge and make the changes that are necessary to build a high-quality, sustainable system.'
Pam Cahir's full presentation, A systems approach to the delivery of children's services in this country - does it have anything to offer?, is available online.
Related news articles on the Early Childhood Australia website:
November 2006 – Nationwide review of early childhood education services
September 2006 – OECD report: Australia lowest in early childhood investment
March 2006 – 'A cheaper, simpler solution to many social ills is staring us in the face'
Feb 2006 – Nobel-winning economist: Invest more in early childhood
Dec 2005 – The case for investment in early childhood