Starting them young: Government investments in early childhood education

SKECCIO, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
SKECCIO, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

All parents want to see improvement in their children’s educational outcomes. But strengthening individual knowledge and skills is also at the core of governments’ and policymakers’ agenda for economic growth and development.

Research has shown the importance of investing in education. The economic model of child development assumes that inputs into the production of skills have different impacts on outcomes, whether cognitive (IQ, language) or non-cognitive (health, behaviour, motor skills). This is supported by empirical evidence from studies that show, using individual and household-level data, that early investments in a child’s life yield the greatest results. Because the early years are characterised by great malleability, investments during this period have the most impact and make later investments more effective.

Does this also hold true at the country level? This is the question my co-authors and I sought to answer in our article “Government education expenditures, pre-primary education, and school performance: A cross-country analysis”. Using aggregate data on 19 countries from OECD and PISA, my co-authors and I looked at the correlation between assessment outcomes, on the one hand, and government expenditures on education and children’s participation in early childhood education programs, on the other.

Using a sample dataset showing average student performance in three subjects (mathematics, reading, and science) in 19 countries in 2003, 2012, and 2015, we analysed how the test scores of 15-year-olds are related to participation in early childhood education programs and to the government’s investments in education when the students were 0 to 6 years old and then when they were 7 to 15 years old.

We measured participation in early childhood education by recording the number of years students were enrolled in pre-primary programs between the ages of 3 and 6. To measure early education investments, we used the share of government expenditures on education as a proportion of the country’s GDP.

“Evidence suggests that policymakers should prioritise expenditures on education for younger children, while also emphasising the importance of high-quality programs.”

We found evidence suggesting that average test scores improved when a greater proportion of students had been enrolled in up to one year of pre-primary education. In most cases, that one year was the last year of pre-primary education, which is when the curriculum is typically devoted to boosting primary school readiness. At the same time, we found a very positive association between assessment outcomes at 15 years old and government expenditures on education, particularly when resources were targeted to preschool education.

While the early years have been the subject of considerable study, as our paper notes, “we are the first to quantify how investments in education and enrolment in early childhood education programs affect the cognitive skills of students in a country.”

In addition to exploring the impact of attending preschool, we also looked at measures such as length of enrolment in early education programs, the availability of such programs in the country, and how much parents were required to pay. Between the 2003 and 2015 cohorts, we found a significant increase in the percentage of students attending more than one year of pre-primary education.

Research shows the positive impact of investments in early childhood

Early childhood education programs may differ from one country to another. To account for this, we also included the average pupil-teacher ratio as a proxy to measure the quality of the program. A low ratio, meaning fewer pupils per teacher, is an indication of high quality because it allows the teacher to focus more attention on each pupil, which is generally believed to improve student outcomes.

In our analysis, we also used an index that incorporates early childhood education coverage, child-staff ratio, and level of public spending. Early childhood education coverage measures “the proportion of children in a given age category with a free full-time place in public or publicly-provided childcare facilities.”

To determine how the students’ early childhood education experiences affected their later performance, we used the country’s average PISA assessment scores for reading, mathematics, and science measured at age 15.

“Our research underlines the positive impact of investments in early childhood on student test scores and educational outcomes.”

However, averages mask the distribution of student performance. The PISA project divides scores into 6 proficiency levels, corresponding to different levels of difficulty. Students are considered low performers if their scores are level 2 or below, while they are classified as high performers if their scores are at least level 5. Using the proportions of low and high performing students in the same three subject domains, we found that both higher government expenditures on early education and increased attendance in these programs improve students’ performance at age 15.

Our research underlines the positive impact of investments in early childhood on student test scores and educational outcomes. Evidence at the individual, household and country levels suggests that policymakers should prioritise expenditures on education for younger children, while also emphasising the importance of high-quality programs.

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