Early childhood education at home and abroad

Countries around the world are exploring how to provide high-quality early childhood education and care (ECE). The United States lags behind many developed nations in both access to ECE and in the quality of education and care provided. The United States ranks 28th out of 38 industrialized countries for the share of 4–year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Public spending on child care and ECE services remains low at only 0.4 percent of GDP—32nd among 37 countries surveyed by the OECD.

Extensive research in numerous countries has demonstrated the value and importance of investing in high-quality early childhood education.

The OECD has recognized five research-based components of a national high-quality early childhood education policy:

  • Setting out quality goals and regulations;
  • Designing and implementing curriculum and standards;
  • Improving qualifications, training and working conditions;
  • Engaging families and communities; and
  • Advancing data collection, research and monitoring.


Early childhood international chart
Source: OECD Family Database, Oct. 18, 2012

As the U.S. explores how to expand high-quality ECE as part of President Obama’s budget initiative, examples of successful implementation of proven strategies can inform the debate:

  • France has achieved nearly universal access to preschool education with nearly 100 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds attending écoles maternelles, which are part of the national education system, operated by the Ministry of Education, and fully funded and organized by the national government.
  • Japan maintains quality standards with a nationwide curriculum for both child care centers that enroll children from birth to age 3, and for kindergartens that enroll children ages 3-5. The curricula are designed to build on each other and into the primary-school curriculum, emphasizing language and social skills, as well as mental and physical health.
  • The Canadian province of Quebec has expanded access by focusing on affordability; all families have access to child care for $7 a day or less, depending on income.
  • In New Zealand, kindergarten and pre-K teachers have pay parity with primary and secondary school teachers. The funding system for ECE services was revised to incentivize hiring more highly qualified ECE educators, leading to higher levels of certified ECE providers.
  • Sweden fosters community engagement with a national ECE reference group that includes heads of ECE facilities, trade unions, researchers and other stakeholders in determining ECE policy, as well as with mandatory parental engagement guidelines for ECE facilities and schools.

Similar proven strategies have been implemented in parts of the United States:

  • In Oklahoma, nearly all 4-year-olds have access to high-quality public preschool provided by 98 percent of school districts at no charge to families.
  • The U.S. military makes high-quality early childhood education and care available to all children of members of the armed forces from infancy on at income-dependent tuition rates. Early childhood educators have a career ladder where compensation increases with educational attainment.
  • In Washington, D.C., 59 percent of 3-year-olds, in addition to nearly all 4-year-olds, are enrolled in publicly funded preschool.

The American Federation of Teachers has called for practices pertaining to early childhood education to be grounded both in research and a commitment to ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education and care for all children by: