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The “Inconvenient Truths” of Early Childhood Education and Care

The United States needs to rethink its approach to early childhood education and care (ECEC), based on the experiences of innovative systems around the world, and develop a cohesive system that is high-quality, equitable, sustainable, and efficient. This is the principal finding of the groundbreaking study from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), The Early Advantage. An event to release the study was held in Washington, DC, on May 16.

The study examines how innovative jurisdictions around the world are strategically and inventively designing and implementing early childhood policies and services to advance children’s well-being, and provides policy recommendations to help the United States expand the reach, equity, and rigor of its early childhood offerings.

In the new book and centerpiece of the study, The Early Advantage 2: Building Systems That Work for Young Children, world-renowned early childhood researcher Sharon Lynn Kagan, her co-editor Eva Landsberg, and a team of international experts explore the ECEC systems of Australia, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, extracting essential elements from each of these innovative systems. The study found five common policy “pillars” in each jurisdiction: strong policy foundations; comprehensive services, funding, and governance; knowledgeable and supported teachers and families; informed, individualized, and continuous pedagogy; and data to drive improvement—as well as 15 “building blocks” or system elements that undergird the policy pillars.

These findings point to the “inconvenient truths” about early childhood education and care in the United States, according to Kagan, the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy and director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Our study provides a guide for the U.S.—and countries around the globe—to improve their systems by focusing on the building blocks and pillars that serve as the cornerstones of early childhood education and care in the highest-performing jurisdictions in the world.”

The findings of the study suggest some avenues the United States can take to strengthen its early childhood and care system. These include

  1. Boldly address the inconvenient truths
    • Be realistic about the U.S. context
    • Bury the “one best strategy” approach
    • Honor synergies to create a system and infrastructure that advances quality, equity, sustainability, and efficiency
  2. Be more inventive about revenue generation and distribution
    • Think about engaging both the public and private sectors
    • Consider incentivizing quality, equity, sustainability, and efficiency
  3. Focus on bridging policy and program gaps among ECEC services
    • Create effective governance structures
    • Use policy tools (e.g., frameworks, regulations, professional credentials) to create alignment among and continuity across programs
  4. Be more inventive about workforce preparation, compensation, and deployment
    • Create common levels and titles for the workforce that transcend states and programs
    • Tie compensation to competence
    • Deploy personnel flexibly
  5. Create a national curricular framework that focuses on quality, equity, sustainability, and efficiency
    • Focus on quality pedagogy for each and every child
    • Incentivize the framework’s adaptation throughout the nation
    • Use the framework to inspire improvements in monitoring, financing and professional preparation
  6. Focus on data for quality improvement
    • Build comprehensive data systems that include provisions for the collection and use of data on children, families, programs, personnel, and systems
    • Foster a national research agenda on ECEC systems and their infrastructure.

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