The experience of participation in a typical early childhood education (ECE) programme can give children an academic advantage according to research.
But any benefit from participating in ECE depends principally on factors in the child's home-background and the standard of early childhood education - specifically the qualification level of staff counted in the minimum teacher-child ratio.
The study discussed below is one of the first to provide evidence on what level of qualification is related to effective teaching and is appropriate for early childhood staff to have.
Note that previous research has demonstrated a strongly positive link between staff with higher levels of education and specialised training in child development and children's language and cognitive development. Many studies have identified that while some untrained staff may easily fit in to the role and behave and have the knowledge and characteristics similar to a person who has successfully undergone a training programme, on the whole qualified staff engage in warmer, less authoritarian, and more positive interactions with children than unqualified staff.
Staff qualification level
The researchers discovered that Australian children whose ECE teachers held an ECE diploma or degree qualification performed better at numeracy, reading and spelling in Year 3. But children whose ECE teachers held only a certificate or no relevant childcare qualification at all were "indistinguishably similar" to children who did not attend ECE in the year prior to starting school.
The study published by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in 2013 involved a detailed analysis of the NAPLAN results of 2229 year 3 school students against their early childhood education experience as recorded by a federal government long-term study of Australian children.
NAPLAN stands for the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy. Every year, students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in all Australian schools are assessed using common national tests in of numeracy, reading, writing and language (including spelling, grammar and punctuation).
The critical issue of selection bias
“One of the main issues faced by researchers attempting to identify the effects of non-compulsory, large-scale pre-school programs is that of selection bias. Children’s pre-school experiences are not randomly determined. Parents who place a high value on their children’s education may be more likely to enrol their children in a high quality pre-school program. Therefore, better educational outcomes are not likely to be due entirely to the pre-school program, but also to greater parental support. Children who attend high quality pre-school programs may also be more advantaged in terms of household income and parental education”. (p.13)
The study found that ECE attendance benefited most the children who were average to high academic performers at school level. For numeracy, children whose test scores were at the higher end of achievement in Year 3 were found to have benefited most from attending ECE, while for spelling and reading, children whose test scores were around the middle of the achievement distribution also benefited from ECE.
How much higher the NAPLAN scores of children who did not attend ECE might have been had they attended ECE was statistically estimated by the researchers. It was found that children who did not attend ECE would have benefited from it most in terms of later cognitive outcomes.
Full reference: Warren, D. & Haisken-DeNew, J.P. (2013). Early Bird Catches the Worm: The Causal Impact of Pre-school Participation and Teacher Qualifications on Year 3 National NAPLAN Cognitive Tests. Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 34/13. Melbourne: Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research.
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