The latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment give tantalizing hints of the connections between students’ early-childhood education and their later math scores.
A new international test may provide more insights into what those connections mean for policy, but experts warn that it remains hard to tell what the United States can learn from other countries’ approaches to preschool.
“The Finnish example [of high PISA scores and high preschool enrollment in Finland] has been used to say, OK, there’s an argument to be made to do early literacy and math in preschool,” said Marianne Bloch, an education professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies early-childhood education around the world, “but then the Finnish people say, we don’t encourage our kids to start [primary] school until age 7, and they think play is learning. So it’s difficult to do these comparisons in a reliable and meaningful way.”
The 2015 international-benchmarking test—as in previous PISA iterations—showed stronger math results for students who had participated in at least a few years of education between ages 3 and 5, before the start of formal primary school. In most countries, students who had attended two to three years of preschool performed 50 scale points better in math as 15-year-olds on the 2015 PISA than those who had attended less than a year. The effect was stronger in countries with multiyear preschool systems and smaller average teacher-student ratios in the earliest grades.
Moreover, after taking socioeconomic status into account, students across countries who had attended at least a year of preschool were still less likely to be low performers in math on PISA than those who had not. The 2015 results also showed a connection between preschool and better scores in science, though that effect was smaller.
“Children in young grades who have a strong foundation in numbers, that follows them through the secondary grades,” said Matthew Larson, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “That’s entirely consistent with the research, and it does suggest that it’s something for school district officials to consider.”
In the past decade, most countries have broadened access to education for 3- and 4-year-olds, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors PISA.
Overall, the average preschool enrollment in countries that take part in PISA rose from 54 percent in 2005 to 69 percent in 2015 for 3-year-olds, and from 73 percent to 85 percent for 4-year-olds. Some of the countries with the fastest growth in math on PISA, including South Korea, Poland, and Russia, increased preschool enrollment by 30 percentage points or more.
The United States has also increased preschool enrollment, but 17 percent of students who took the PISA in 2015 reported they had attended no preschool at all.
But beyond the absolute averages, it’s harder to pull policy lessons for preschool education from PISA.
Drew Bailey, an assistant education professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied early-math-education issues, said he was “quite skeptical” about any takeaways for preschool policy from PISA because of the variations in test administration and preschool structure in different countries.
While two to three years of preschool seems to be linked with benefits in math, more years than that were not. In part, that may be because some countries provide earlier preschool entry for children who have disabilities or are otherwise disadvantaged; that could mean the pool of students who received the most years of preschool could also be lower performers on average than those who spent less time in preschool.
There’s also no common definition of what “preprimary education” involves, and countries take very different approaches.
Of the 24 countries and education systems in the OECD’s fourth Starting Strong study of early-childhood systems, in 2015, only 1 in 5 evaluated their programs for how they implemented curricula or how their students fared in child-development outcomes. The study thus provided little comparable information on how different preschool policies affect students’ academic development.
For example, the OECD found that while nearly all countries that took part in PISA have standards or curricula for children from age 3 to the start of primary school, the content varies significantly from country to country.
Top-performing Asian jurisdictions, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, all have almost universal enrollment in at least two years of preprimary school with an academic-content focus. But as Bloch noted, Finland’s math performance is also near the top and its preschool enrollment is high, although its preschools focus more on play-based social and emotional development.
PISA for Preschool?
That’s why the OECD next year will begin piloting an International Early Learning Study, or IELS, for the youngest pupils. While the domains to be tested are not final, the OECD is considering measuring 4½- to 5½-year-olds on “early skills that are predictive of positive life outcomes,” including such areas as self-regulation, oral language and early literacy, mathematics and early numeracy, executive function, social skills, and locus of control, an indicator of a child’s sense of autonomy.
Sixteen countries, including the United States, have participated in planning for the assessment, which will be piloted in up to six countries in 2017-18.
Yet many in the early-childhood field have voiced concerns about adding young children to international comparisons.
More than 130 child-development researchers and educators in 20 countries—including Bloch—signed a statement in the December International Critical Childhood Policies journal urging caution on the IELS.
“I feel strongly if there is a PISA-like assessment of math in early learning, we need to have qualitative assessments of children alongside them, and not put all credence in the standardized assessments,” Bloch said.
What’s more, standardizing international assessment for early childhood could create too much focus on preschool approaches that lend themselves to Western-style assessment, said Elizabeth Swadener, an assistant education professor at the University of Arizona who also signed the statement. She pointed to Greece, which scores below average on PISA in math, but where educators have been adapting “street math” programs for Roma and Kenyan street children.
“If you are working with children who are already part of an informal economy, you can use very particular story problems that build on the logic they are familiar with,” Swadener said. “But you don’t enter [math concepts] the same way as Western rules.”
Larson, of the math teachers’ council, agreed with the critiques, but said there is still potential in assessing students’ early numeracy in different education systems.
“We don’t want to turn preschool into kindergarten or 1st grade,” he said, “but there is a benefit to having a preschool program that does have a high-quality math curricular component to it.”
Coverage of early-math education is supported in part by a grant from the CME Group Foundation, at www.cmegroupfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Preschool Linked to Higher Scores on PISA Math Test