Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Would Expanding Preschool & Daycare Benefit Latin America?

Q: Colombian Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas said last month that the country's tax reforms would help pay to expand early childhood education, adding that 2.4 million children younger than five are in families too poor to afford preschool. A few days later, Brazilian presidential candidate Aécio Neves proposed expanding preschool to all children in the country as well as creating universal access to daycare. To what extent would expanding preschool and daycare benefit Latin American countries, when even some industrialized countries like the United States do not offer those benefits? Are such initiatives likely to be realized in the region? Are there drawbacks to such plans?

A: Claudio X. González Guajardo, president of Mexicanos Primero in Mexico City: "The first years of life are crucial for adequate development, and vigorous and coordinated action during this stage can help mitigate inequalities. The most critical stage for development is the prenatal to age 3 period, yet many children living in poverty lack opportunities for learning, protection and affection. As time goes by, the results of having begun life in poverty become greater obstacles. Between 3 and 5 years of age, children acquire the communicative, affective and thinking skills that will help them advance successfully toward primary school and the remainder of their education. Evidence from cognitive tests during this period suggests a widening gap between children from high- and low-income families. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, then, the first day of primary school may already be too late. State support through early childhood education programs becomes key to helping them achieve their fullest potential. In Mexico, universal preschool was established in 2004, and average preschool coverage for ages 3-5 has increased considerably. This improvement has not been uniform across the country; in marginalized communities, still only about one out of every two young children attends preschool. All children are born with not only the capacity, but also the right to learn. In Mexico, and in Latin America, many children under six, especially those who live in poverty, are socially invisible; their rights are not respected or exercised. Early childhood education is one policy lever that can enhance their healthy development and set them on a different course, at the same time generating lasting benefits for society.""

A: Ariel Fiszbein, director of the education program (PREAL) at the Inter-American Dialogue: "There is increasing interest in and support for investments in early childhood development. Nobel Prize laureate Jim Heckman has become one of the most vocal voices in the United States and around the world arguing that investing in the human capital of young children is a fiscally responsible way of reducing costs and promoting economic growth. Many countries in Latin America are already expanding early education programs as a means of improving school readiness. This is often understood simply as establishing a large number of centers for early care. Is this the right approach? Will it yield the results that people like Jim Heckman are thinking about? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released a report in late September on High Quality Pre-K programs. I believe the report, prepared by Jim Minervino, is extremely important for countries in Latin America. It offers us some food for thought. It cautions us against efforts that expand center-based care without sufficient focus on quality.A key message of the review is that low-quality programs not only don't help children, but also can have a negative impact on their school readiness. Only high-quality programs have reliable and large positive effects on school readiness. A key element of quality is the nature of the teacher-child interactions. Evidence shows the level of instructional quality--the cognitive demands teachers embed in their interactions with children--is very low in the United States. The report notes, however, that there are professional development models (online coaching, web-based video library, online and in-person courses) that make teachers effective with great consistency. In other words, it is possible to train teachers to be effective. In terms of structural quality in early learning, the report finds that class sizes above 20 students and teacher-child ratios above 2:20 (one lead teacher, one aide, and 20 children in a classroom) are associated with poorer outcomes for young children. I found the report both inspiring and cautionary: the payoff of expanding early education can be very large--but only if sufficient attention is paid to quality."

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