Early Childhood

Study Finds U.S. Trailing in Preschool Enrollment

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 11, 2012 3 min read
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The United States lags behind most of the world’s leading economies when it comes to providing early-childhood education opportunities to young children despite improvements in recent years, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

According to the Paris-based OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2012,” a report released today, the United States ranks 28th out of 38 countries for the share of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-primary education programs, at 69 percent. That’s compared with more than 95 percent enrollment rates in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Mexico, which lead the world in early-childhood participation rates for 4-year-olds. Ireland, Poland, Finland, and Brazil are among the nations that trail the United States.

The United States also invests significantly less public money in early-childhood programs than its counterparts in the Group of Twenty, or G-20, economies, which include 19 countries and the European Union. On average, across the countries that are compared in the OECD report, 84 percent of early-childhood students were enrolled in public programs or in private settings that receive major government resources in 2010. In this country, just 55 percent of early-childhood students were enrolled in publicly supported programs in 2010, while 45 percent attended independent private programs.

“The United States is still pretty far behind much of the rest of the industrialized world,” in terms of publicly supported early-childhood opportunities, Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s deputy director for education and the special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general of the OECD, said in a briefing.

Mr. Schleicher noted that the benefits of early-childhood education are apparent in the outcomes for individual students, but are less obvious at the school system, or country level. He pointed to France, where participation is nearly universal, but overall outcomes for students who take OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, are nearly as strong as they are in Finland, for example, which ranks even lower than the United States on participation in formal early-childhood programs.

But, apart from outliers like Finland, “generally, what we see is that those children who have participated in early-childhood education and care have significant outcomes at age 15 at the individual level,” he said. Overall, students in OECD countries who have attended early-childhood programs tend to perform better on the PISA test than those who did not, he said.

OECD’s annual international comparison of education systems included the early-childhood indicators for the first time this year, just as the focus of state and federal policymakers in the United States increasingly homes in on the need for increasing access to quality early education for 3- and 4-year-olds as a key strategy for preparing students—especially those from poor families—for academic success later on.

The study also examined other new measures, including how a parent’s education influences a child’s academic-attainment levels and factors that affect how immigrant children perform academically.

The study found that the United States presents some of the longest odds for college attainment for children born to parents who did not finish high school, ranking near the bottom on this indicator for upward social mobility. Just 29 percent of U.S. students whose parents did not finish high school are likely to go onto college, compared with over 70 percent in Iceland, and more than 60 percent in Turkey, Portugal, and Ireland. Only Canada and New Zealand ranked behind the United States on the social-mobility measure.

The study also found that the relationship between poor reading performance and the proportion of students whose mothers have low levels of education was much stronger than the relationship between reading performance and the proportion of immigrant students who do not speak the primary language of instruction at home, or the relationship between reading and the share of immigrant students in a school. Across OECD countries, including the United States, more than one-third of immigrant students attended the schools with the highest concentrations of low-educated mothers, according to the report.

Among other key findings for the United States, the report also notes that:

• The United States ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds who have earned a postsecondary degree;

• American students rely more heavily on private sources to pay for higher education than their peers in other OECD countries; and

• Teachers in the United States are paid less and spend more time teaching—between 1,050 and 1,100 hours per year—compared with their peers in most other OECD countries.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week

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