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Early childhood education in U.S. is trailing behind other countries

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on November 6, 2012)

In my last column I suggested some characteristics parents ought to look for in choosing a preschool program for their child. And I acknowledged, reluctantly, that for many lower-income families, choice is not always an option.

A new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) fills in the picture on how the U.S. compares with its international peers on early childhood education.

For its report, Education at a Glance 2012, OECD studied its 34-member countries and several additional G20 countries. Among its findings:

  • Across the studied countries in 2010, 79 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool education. In the European Union, the percentage was 83.
  • In comparison, only 69 percent of U.S. 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool education, ranking the U.S. 28th among 38 nations studied.
  • The top 15 countries, including many of our economic competitors, all had enrollments exceeding 90 percent.
  • The typical preschool starting age for U.S. children is 4, compared with a starting age of 3 or younger in 21 other OECD countries.

These findings matter because OECD data suggest that enrollment in early childhood education correlates with higher educational achievement later. Students who received preschool education performed better at age 15 on international tests of reading, mathematics and science (using the Program for International Student Assessment). In fact, the more preschool education a child had, the higher their 15-year-old score. Students with one additional year of preschool had scores almost 10 points higher.

While the U.S. spends considerably more per 4-year-old pupil than the OECD average — $8,396 compared with $6,670 — much of our expenditure comes from private sources. Only 55 percent of U.S. preschool students were enrolled in public programs, compared with 84 percent in public or publicly supported private settings in other countries. Here in Tennessee, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, only 10 percent of 3-year-olds and 35 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state or federally supported preschool. State spending per child has been stagnant at about $4,660 per student for the past five years.

When I first spoke with professor Dale Farran, one of Peabody’s resident experts on early childhood education, she told me of the stark differences between preschool education in the U.S. and its European counterparts, where governments assume a clear responsibility for the well-being of young children. In comparison, the U.S. offers a patchwork system of preschool education provided by federal and state governments, supported by local agencies or paid for directly by families.

With such a system, it is all too easy for nearly a third of our preschool-age children to fall through the cracks.

We know from research that a quality preschool education can help to level the playing field for children of poverty by improving their readiness for kindergarten. Investing in children early provides a solid foundation for long-term learning and reducing inequality.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.