Rising enrollments in preschool programs and increasing use of nonparental child care are surely among the most significant worldwide trends of the past two decades. Demand for preschool services has also been fueled by an increased understanding of the importance of the early years of life, as well as by concern over the high proportions of children who are doing poorly in school. It is generally agreed that the nations comprising the European Union have some of the world’s most highly developed early care and education (ECE) systems and some of the best empirical evidence on the effects of preschool experiences on children’s development and welfare. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a tremendous expansion of preschool programs for children from the age of three to the age of compulsory schooling (ranging from five to seven), and approximately half of E.U. countries now have publicly funded preschool places available for 79% or more of the children in this age group. Of course, as a result of the increased dominance of free market economics, many countries are feeling pressure to reduce social benefits to become more “efficient”—in this context, continued support for quality preschool programs may depend on compelling evidence of their cost-effectiveness and not on their popular support. The information presented here may prove helpful to U.S. policymakers, researchers, early childhood educators, and advocates seeking evidence of ECE program effectiveness and results.
International research provides considerable evidence that high quality early childhood programs can substantially improve children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Further, it shows that such programs are especially beneficial for children in poverty, that some of the benefits are impressively long lasting, and that the long-term benefits of effective programs can far outweigh their costs. Many countries are far ahead of the United States in making free or inexpensive preschool programs available to three to six-year-olds, though ECE services for younger children remain more expensive and less available. In France, a Ministry of Education survey of sixth graders found that every year of preschool in ecole maternelle reduced the likelihood of school failure, especially for children from the most disadvantaged homes. (The French ecole maternelle is fully funded by the national government and provide free, full-day programs with a national curriculum developed by the Ministry of Education; ecole maternelle teachers earn a salary comparable to that of elementary school teachers.) In the United Kingdom, comparisons between children who attended playgroups, private or public nursery schools, or no preschool indicated that experience in any preschool program contributed to cognitive development and school achievement at ages five and ten. (Public investment in full-day child care is limited in the U.K. and many families rely on individual childminders, who may or may not be registered with the government.) An analysis of statistics routinely collected by the elementary schools in one state in Germany, where 56% to 69% of children between three and six attend half-day preschools that are provided by the government at no cost to parents, produced similar findings. Preschool experience influenced rates of retention in grade, assignment to special education, and other school outcomes more consistently than any other factor studied. In Sweden, children with extensive preschool experience (in centers or family child care) performed significantly better on cognitive tests and received more positive ratings from their teachers both on school achievement and social-personal attributes than children with less or no ECE experience. In fact, children placed in out-of-home care before age one received the most positive ratings on verbal facility, persistence, independence and confidence, as well as the lowest ratings on anxiety. The positive effects of day care persisted throughout the elementary school period. (In Sweden, local governments provide carefully supervised, subsidized child care through centers and family child care homes to about half of the nation’s children between birth and school entry at age seven.) Although specification of the crucial components of program quality continues to elude ECE researchers, most would agree that a high-quality preschool program should be based on a variety of developmentally appropriate activities that engage children. For example, the curriculum of the French ecole maternelle includes emergent literacy and other activities designed to acculturate children to a formal school setting, but gives equal attention to the cultivation of children’s curiosity, creativity, psychomotor development, and social skills. Some indicators of quality considered essential by American evaluators, such as class size and child-to-staff ratios, are accorded less importance in Europe. E.U. programs do, however, have well-trained personnel, though training requirements vary from one nation or system to another. Not surprisingly, in nations with high proportions of well-trained teachers and caretakers, salaries tend to be relatively high and staff turnover relatively low. In Europe as in the United States, the involvement of parents in their children’s preschools is often postulated as an important element of program quality. While there is little empirical evidence supporting the claims regarding the benefits of parental involvement, preschool programs in European countries do involve parents in varying ways and degrees.
Efforts to use the preschool system to reduce rates of early school failures and the vast inequalities among children from different social backgrounds are usually based on one of two general strategies: (1) providing preschool programs as universal entitlements, ensuring that the programs are of high enough quality so that they are supported and used by high and low income families alike (a strategy used in France and Sweden); and (2) developing compensatory preschool programs targeted specifically at children in poverty. Programs aimed at children from poor or immigrant families include home-based “enrichment” programs. In Europe, as in the United States, preschool appears to have a greater impact on the lives of poor children than more advantaged children. In the French and British studies discussed earlier, preschool experience was found to be most beneficial for the most disadvantaged. A recent German study of the effects of kindergarten (publicly financed preschool for children age three and older) on children’s school outcomes shows similar results. While participation in preschool did not significantly enhance enrollment in an academic high school or high school curriculum for native German children, it did increase the probability that the children of guest workers or recent immigrants would achieve a higher educational level. The United States has invested more than any other nation in rigorous research on the effects of preschool programs, and has produced a strong body of evidence of the long-term benefits of good quality programs, especially for children in poverty. Yet our nation continues to have one of the world’s most fragmented, incoherent, and incomplete ECE systems. This is due in part to our ambivalence about large public investments in “other people’s children” and, perhaps, to our reluctance to learn from the experiences of other nations. This must change. Although much remains to be done in conceptualizing and assessing the quality of E.U. programs, the studies surveyed here provide valuable information for U.S. policymakers, educators, and other stakeholders. The long-term costs of the failure to provide high-quality early childhood programs—higher costs for education, social services, police and prisons, and lost productivity and tax payments—are likely to be far higher than the costs of these programs. The long-term benefits of current European preschool policies and programs are by no means decisively demonstrated, but the results thus far show the plausibility of an array of policies and services that merit more serious consideration in this country. The question is how a shift toward universal access to high quality preschool programs can be made compatible with American individualism, suspicion of governmental interference in family affairs, and demands for choice and free association. The action plan developed by the E.U. which attempts to combine unity of purpose with accommodation of national and within-nation diversity, which envisions ECE systems that are coherent but flexible, offering programs and services to all families but allowing choices among them, seems to violate no important American values and may constitute a lesson from Europe that Americans can accept.