Early Childhood Education Programs at Risk

02 January 2024

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says "The period from birth to eight years old is one of remarkable brain development for children." The organization adds that it represents an important time for their development and education.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health says that supporting children's early learning can lead to higher test scores and a better chance of staying in school and going to college. Studies even suggest early learning can lead to fewer teen pregnancies, improved mental health, and a longer life.

Early learning in OECD countries

FILE - Elijah Rollings, 2, plays with a train set at Bumble Art Studio daycare center in Astoria, Ore., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
FILE - Elijah Rollings, 2, plays with a train set at Bumble Art Studio daycare center in Astoria, Ore., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is made up of 38 democracies with market-based economies. The organization aims to build better policies for better lives.

In a recent education study, the OECD found that most of its member countries provide care or education for children under 5. In countries, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Spain and Britain, at least 95 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in an early education program.

However, within OECD countries, there can be a large difference in enrollment. In the United States, for example, 80 percent of 3 to 5-year-olds in the capital city of Washington, D.C. are enrolled in early education programs. That is compared to 46 percent in the western state of North Dakota.

The differences also exist in European countries like Greece, Lithuania, and Switzerland. Places with higher rates of women in the workforce usually have higher rates of enrollment for children under 3.

Child care and kindergarten

During the pandemic, the U.S. government provided an additional $24 billion to help child care programs nationwide. The funding finally ended last October.

The Century Foundation is a research organization in New York City. It estimates that one-third of the programs could close as a result. That affects more than 2.2 million children. The organization says that child care is important for the economy at large since child care permits parents to stay at work.

Around the world, governments invest little in early childhood education, UNESCO says. About 6.6 percent of education budgets are put toward early education programs, 2 percent in poor countries. That is well below the target of 10 percent by 2030 suggested by the children's organization UNICEF.

In the U.S., parents can choose to put their children at age 5 in kindergarten or a child care program.

Kindergarten enrollment has dropped since the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerned about the virus or wanting to avoid online school, hundreds of thousands of families delayed the start of school for their young children.

The Associated Press found that kindergarten enrollment remained down 5.2 percent in the 2022-2023 school year compared with the 2019-2020 school year.

Deborah Stipek is a former head of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. She said kindergarten is where children learn to follow directions, learn good behavior, and get used to learning. Stipek said missing that year of school can put kids at a disadvantage.

Last year, Aylah went to a children's program that met mainly outdoors instead of enrolling in kindergarten in the state of California. Aylah now has to adjust to being inside a classroom and learning the right way to hold a pencil.

"It's harder. Way, way harder," Aylah said of the new way she learned to hold a pencil.

Still, her mother Hannah Levy says it was the right decision to skip kindergarten. She wanted Aylah to enjoy being a child. There is plenty of time, she reasoned, for her daughter to develop study skills.

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English, with additional reporting from the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

remarkable — adj. unusual or surprising

teen — n. someone who is between 13 and 19 years old

enroll — v. to enter as a member of or participant in something

kindergarten — n. a school or class for very young children

behavior — n. the way a person or animal acts or behaves

disadvantage — n. something that makes someone or something worse or less likely to succeed than others

adjust — v. to change in a minor way so that it works better