When global goals meet local realities

Measuring the quality of early childhood development services
Christina Kessler,  flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Christina Kessler, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

This is an important time in history, when efforts to measure and bolster the quality of early childhood development (ECD) services are emerging simultaneously from nationally and globally endorsed agendas. For the past two years, our team of researchers – Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Sharon Lynn Kagan, and myself – has partnered with the government of Colombia to design, test, and implement the first-ever quality measure for ECD services at scale.

Coincidentally, this initiative was launched in concert with the Colombian Ministry of Education and with the support of the Inter-Sectorial Commission for Early Childhood just before adoption of the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Target 4.2 of the SDGs aims to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education [by 2030]”. For researchers, inclusion of such a goal in the global agenda provides a unique opportunity to promote evidence-based policies for young children.

In 2013, our team conducted an assessment of the governance of ECD systems in Colombia. We identified important attributes of the governance that have set the stage for ECD in the country. For example, the social and protection sectors regulate some child care and development centers for children under the age of five years, while the Ministry of Education regulates others.

This dual oversight has introduced great diversity in the vision, approach and supply of ECD services in the country. For instance, although national guidelines exist for the operationalization of ECD services, no national curriculum is in place, and pedagogical approaches are defined and planned locally by each institution. Furthermore, the country does not undertake assessments of children’s readiness to transition to primary school.

As with all approaches to national ECD governance, Colombia’s system has both strengths and challenges. An advantage of diversity in governance and the absence of standardization is the flexibility the system offers to adapt to local needs. It also provides a framework for “atención diferencial,” a term that refers to the ability of a system to meet children’s individual needs. This diversity, however, makes it difficult to determine whether specific service modalities may promote or compromise the rights of children in different geographic, ethnic, and socioeconomic contexts to enjoy equitable services. Moreover, evidence-based approaches to improving services are limited by a lack of information on associations between certain services and child outcomes.

We have learned several lessons that will help ensure that future ECD governance processes are rooted in sustainable policies while also conforming to both local and global visions:

Lesson 1: National leadership and buy-in are the cornerstones of sustainability

In the face of competing priorities for public spending and the need to fund improved ECD services, quality assessment is often perceived as less important. To overcome this potential barrier, it is imperative that such assessments are aligned with national policy objectives, as defined by national leaders. While international cooperation can be an important catalyst, national stakeholders should drive the process and identify mechanisms that promote the institutionalization and sustainable financing of quality assessment.

Lesson 2: National frameworks for quality must guide the development of quality measures, but international frameworks can be used to inform them

Important global initiatives to provide technical support for the development of quality measures are emerging. We have partnered with the Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO) initiative, which provides a set of instruments to assess process and structural quality while also offering a set of child outcome measures to assess school readiness. These frameworks represent a useful starting point for designing national measures. However, countries often have existing and operational quality guidelines that must ultimately determine the relevant domains, constructs, and items. Any instrument that is used needs to be highly culturally responsive.

Lesson 3: The components of the quality measure should include inputs and outputs of the system, which must conform to the country’s vision for ECD

Effective quality assessments include input (structural and process quality) as well as output (child outcome) measures. In a country like Colombia, where outcomes and process measures have not been tracked systematically in the past, this represents a paradigm shift. In this context, it is important to make clear to the relevant stakeholders how child outcome measures should and should not be used. Furthermore, given the diversity in service modalities, it is not possible to apply one single measure to all services. A phased-in assessment approach is needed, one that is responsive and guided by national policy priorities and that allows for field testing and piloting.

Lesson 4: Issues of feasibility must be explored early and must include technical and human resource capacity mapping at the local level

How will the data be gathered, and who will gather them? How will the data be transferred from the local to the central level? How will the data inform policy options? How can quality assessments be aligned with existing oversight mechanisms? How will quality assessments be perceived by local stakeholders, and will those stakeholders resist external quality assessments? Ignoring these questions of feasibility and local ownership during the early stages puts the entire process at great risk; it is important to consider implementation constraints at the outset, but not to be fully bound by them.

Lesson 5: Strategic partnerships are essential for uptake, financing, and scale-up

In Colombia, efforts thus far have involved government, academia (Dr. Carolina Maldonado, Universidad de los Andes), and international partners (World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank). For the first time ever, the Colombian Institute for Educational Assessment (ICFES), an agency that has traditionally focused on evaluations of higher education, is actively involved in ECD. This is a remarkable innovation in cooperation and showcases the inter-institutional links that can be fostered.

It is crucial to promote the adoption, sustainability and scalability of quality assessments of ECD services. Our experience thus far highlights the importance of leveraging national leadership and capacities, while capitalizing on the progress of global initiatives and emerging frameworks. In light of the SDGs and current national agendas, we face an exciting opportunity to advance quality ECD at a global scale.