Last year, the Starting Well Index was launched by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a part of the company that publishes The Economist magazine. The index “ranks the preschool environments in 45 countries.” These nations encompass “the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and major emerging markets,” according to the unit’s report, which was commissioned by the Singapore-based Lien Foundation.
The index takes a global look at preschool quality, availability and affordability, and shows that the world has a great deal of progress to make. This includes the United States, which ranks 24th overall, lagging behind several European and Asian countries, New Zealand and Israel.
“Consciously setting aside a time to stimulate young children’s development is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the 1980s, preschools in most countries were largely focused on providing simple child minding,” the report says. “But as economies shift towards more knowledge-based activities, awareness about child development—the need to improve their social awareness, confidence and group interaction skills, and to prepare them for starting primary education—continues to grow.”
“Finland, Sweden and Norway top the Index,” the report says, “thanks to sustained, long-term investments and prioritization of early childhood development, which is now deeply embedded in society.”
In top-ranked Finland, preschool provides “a year of free half-day classes for six-year-olds, which is complemented with day care for the other half of the day. This builds on a program that gives parents access to full-day childcare from birth till the age of six, at a capped cost,” the report says. It adds, “To ensure quality, Finland has systematically developed teaching as a professional career. Teachers have to attain high university qualifications: all have a three-or four-year bachelor’s degree in education, while many complete a master’s degree.”
The report notes that in general the ingredients for countries’ success include:
- Universal enrollment of children in at least one year of preschool at ages five or six, with nearly universal enrollment between ages of three and five
- Subsidies for lower-income families
- Well-defined preschool curriculum
- Health and safety standards
- High professional standards for early educators as well as commensurate wages
- Low student-teacher ratios
The outcomes for the United States show considerable room for improvement. In addition to ranking 24th overall, the United States ranks 16th in affordability, 22nd in quality, and a disappointing 31st in availability.
In poorer countries, policymakers can face a tough balancing act. They must choose between investing in human development or spending public dollars on infrastructure needs. In wealthier nations such as the United States, high-quality programs are not available to all segments of society. It is this lack of universal access that may keep the U.S. behind other nations, even though the country has made progress in many areas.
There are also countries that “punch above their weight,” as the report puts it, delivering widespread preschool services despite lower per capita incomes. For example, Chile and the Czech Republic “have made significant efforts to ensure preschool provision for all families, including instituting it as a legal right. Even though significant further work is needed to bolster preschool standards in these countries, they have made laudable gains in ensuring at least a minimum level of provision for all.”
Other reports sound similar alarms, warning that other countries are not only racing ahead of the United States, but coming up from behind. As we wrote here and here, China and India have aggressive plans for expanding early education programs.
The Starting Well report concludes, “no country has yet perfected its preschool provision. As all countries seek to develop a more highly skilled labor force that can better compete in a globalized knowledge-based economy, greater consideration of the role of preschool education is needed. Even Finland, top-ranked in this Index, has room for improvement, according to a recent OECD report. For all countries, there remains much to learn.”