Trends in Early Learning
The Changing Face of Early Childhood Education
There’s never been a better time to own a child care or preschool. Rising parent expectations are creating opportunities for those who are ready, but also risk as new public funding attracts new entrants.
RISING ATTENDANCE (AND COMPETITION)
Even as most parents now value early childhood education, preschool attendance rates in North America, most of Asia and Australia still lag the OECD average of 77% and the 98%+ in most European countries and New Zealand.
However, these lagging countries are catching up fast, creating opportunities for local providers.
Australia adopted an early childhood curriculum, the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), in 2012, and attendance is growing from around 40% a few years to 60% of all 3-year olds in 2013. East Asia is also gearing up for universal pre-K.
There is less consensus on the value of early childhood education in the United States. Thought leaders like Zero To Three and Build Initiative are still having to contend with public skepticism about early education, not helped by the controversial Vanderbilt study in 2015 that suggested gains from preschool evaporate by age 8.
In general though, there is a lot of public resources coming into early childhood education around the world, leading to growing participation rates and growth in programs.
It’s an exciting time for early learning programs. Demand for high quality programs is being driven by:
- parent focus on learning outcomes
- public funding flowing into early education
However, this growth is also attracting new entrants, who are raising the competitive bar. It’s a time of heightened competition and risk, but also of heightened opportunity for high quality programs.
PARENTS ARE FOCUSING MORE ON QUALITY
For the longest time, parents everywhere chose their child care program based on location. Who was closest or most convenient?
That is changing, and changing fast.
Parents are demanding to know more about a program before making a choice. There has been a regulatory response in some cases — Australia and Canada, for instance — and an industry response elsewhere, most notably the US.
The ultimate quality rating is holding early childhood programs to school-level accountability, as happens in most of Europe and New Zealand.
Australia launched the NQF, the National Quality Framework, in 2012 and is making great strides in improving the consistency of its early childhood providers.
Canadian early childhood education and childcare (ECEC) is playing catchup, but now includes licensing in most provinces for providers with more than a handful of children.
The United States has been slow to address the need for some kind of consistency and a minimum level of quality in early childhood education. This is in part because many parents and a number of regulators still see early childhood care as more about “daycare” than “preschool.”
However, an educational component is now expected by many, if not most US parents, and so it is becoming a larger part of the focus of many child care centers.
With respect to quality, the QRIS movement, quality rating improvement systems, is seeking to replace a patchwork of uneven accreditation programs with uniform standards, state by state. QRIS is voluntary, and is now active in 40 states, such as the Early Achievers program in WA and QUALITYstarsNY in NY.
What is Quality?
It is interesting that despite different set ups and even end-goals of early childhood education around the world, the cornerstones of quality are quite similar. Here are the common threads:
- The learning environment
- Parent engagement
- Teacher experience and traiing
- Center management
Improving program quality is a focus now of early childhood educators throughout the OECD. This is leading to major gains in parent engagement and an upgrading of staff, undoubtedly lifting learning outcomes.
CURRICULUM IS BECOMING A COMPETITIVE DIFFERENCE
Even 15 years ago, most parents were not aware of the learning philosophy of their child’s early learning program.
That is all changing. Programs are featuring their curriculum and philosophies as a point of difference.
This growing interest in learning outcomes by parents is forcing early learning programs to respond, with a better articulated and more complete curriculum tied to outcomes, such as school readiness.
Curriculum — Structure or No Structure?
For most of Europe and New Zealand, school readiness is around behavioral, emotional and motor skills, not academic standards.
Consequently, curriculum in these places tends to be unstructured, play-based or experience-based, influenced by the writings to Dr. Bruner, Loris Malaguzzi (founder of Reggio Emelia), Margaret Carr and many others.
In these countries, educational content is assumed by parents and accountability, while varying by country, is integral to the early childhood educators process.
The United States is in a very different place. Educational goals are not assumed by parents and so many child care center spend a fair amount of time having to prove their educational value.
There are also differences over curriculum. In line with the test-centric K-12 school system and Common Core State Standards, many preschools have a structured or mixed curriculum where academic goals are important. And tests like KEA, Kindergarten Entry Assessment, and varying concepts of “school readiness” are gaining prominence.
States are one by one issuing their own early childhood education guidelines, many which include reading and math standards.