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In July 2021, the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality hosted a conference to discuss topics including the quality, supervision, and adaptability of early childhood frameworks in Israel and, in particular, as the country emerges from the COVID-19 crisis.

The conference opened with some background about the importance of studying early childhood education frameworks, particularly in Israel. Research from around the world shows that the first few years of life are critical to children’s cognitive and emotional development, and that gaps emerge during these years that only grow and become harder to close with time. Early childhood educational frameworks can help to spur development and narrow such gaps. As Prof. Yossi Shavit, Chair of the Initiative, noted in his opening remarks, in Israel the need for quality early childhood frameworks is even more pronounced due to the country’s high level of fertility and young age structure, high female participation in the labor market, and high poverty rate, particularly among children.

With the generous support the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv, who sponsored this important conference, the Taub Center initiative has released multiple research studies to get a better understanding of the situation in Israel. But as Daniella Ben Atar, Israel Representative at the Bernard van Leer Foundation, mentioned in her opening remarks, the Taub Center Initiative does not only engage with the research, but also prioritizes disseminating the findings, making them accessible, and connecting them to policy.

President of the Taub Center, Prof. Avi Weiss, emphasized this further, saying: “This project is important not only to tell us what happens to children’s test scores when they are older, and not only to tell us what will happen to the economy as a whole in terms of what kind of employment we will have, but also in terms of knowing how to ask the right policy questions. What does this tell us about how society should view early childhood?”

The first session of the conference focused on research surrounding the efficiency and accessibility of early childhood educational and care frameworks in Israel. Chair of the session, Dr. Naomi Moreno, Director of the Early Childhood Dialogue organization, focused the session around two central themes: the accessibility of early childhood frameworks in different population groups and the central stakeholders in the public discourse about these frameworks.

Taub Center researcher Noam Zontag kicked off the session by presenting the findings of a recently published study on the relationship between time spent in early childhood frameworks and later academic achievements. As Zontag explained, the study’s findings suggest that preschool education is even more important for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than for children from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds.

Taub Center researcher Shavit Madhala then shared findings from a working paper on the accessibility of early childhood frameworks in Arab Israeli society. The researchers conducting the study found low participation rates in Arab-majority localities and attribute this phenomenon to four central causes: parents’ personal preferences, accessibility challenges, institutional challenges, and the financial burden. One of the main difficulties, said Madhala, is low employment rates among Arab Israeli women: “Even among Arab women without preschool-aged children, and certainly among those with preschool-age children, labor market participation rates are very low and there are significant disparities compared to other populations,” she said. “This creates a significant accessibility barrier because it means the families are not eligible for subsidies and the fact that the mother isn’t working also lowers the chances of the child being admitted into the preschool.”

Elad Demalach, an economist at the Bank of Israel and PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, presented his research which also focuses particularly on the Arab Israeli society, and followed children from before and after the passage of the Compulsory Education Law for 3-4-year-olds to explore the effect of being in early childhood frameworks at these ages on later outcomes. Demalach and his collaborators found that spending time in preschools for Arab children in Israel improved language skills, increased high school graduation rates and matriculation eligibility, increased enrollment in higher education, decreased juvenile criminal activity, and postponed marriage among women. “We can see that exposure to early childhood education has a significant impact on success later in life,” explained Demalach. “In terms of policy, we can see that the policy of extended free education has had a positive effect in the long run.

Dr. Tali Yariv-Mashal, General Director of the Beracha Foundation, served as respondent to these presentations, focusing on the complexity of the findings and the importance of nuance in driving future policy in the area of early childhood, both at the national and local levels. “The picture is so complex…There is no one ministry that can fully address the socioeconomic gaps that stem from the gaps in education and care in early childhood…So we need to design a more wholistic approach.”

The second session of the conference, chaired by Prof. Yossi Shavit, addressed the debate surrounding the Daycare Supervision Law, which was legislated in Israel in 2018. This law applies to private frameworks for Israeli children ages birth to three years old that serve at least 7 children, and imposes a number of regulations on these institutions in terms of staff training and the physical space in which the preschool operates. Most of the regulations required by the law have not yet been applied, but already the debate over the law’s merits is fierce.

Dr. Yousef Jabareen, Former MK and Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, who led the committee at the time the law was legislated, discussed the process of passing the law and the challenges faced along the way. “The primary challenge we encountered,” said Jabareen, “was that the standards proposed by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services were good standards – not the best standards, but good ones – but the Ministry of Finance did not present a clear budget plan to fund the raising of these standards.” Without the necessary budget, he continued, it was clear to him that the financial burden of requiring much-needed higher standards would ultimately fall to those managing private preschools and to the parents of the children attending them.

This indeed was also the primary critique of Ahinoam Hananya, an educational entrepreneur and activist who herself manages a private kindergarten in Tel Aviv, to the Daycare Supervision Law. As Hananya said, “The main problem with the law, in my opinion, is that there is a stick but no carrot. They require us to rise to a higher level and to invest additional resources, but they do not change their attitude toward us.” In addition to not adequately respecting the needs of the preschool staff, Hananya worries that the new standards will keep staff away from preschools when the system already suffers from a serious lack of potential workers, and that the lack of budget accompanying the regulations will put a strain on the resources of private preschools and ultimately raise the cost of childcare even more for parents. She also emphasized that those who work in early childcare on the ground should be included more in decision-making bodies at the policy level.

In response, Sima Hadad, Vice Chairperson of the National Council for Early Childhood, defended the need for these new regulations even if the lack of appropriate budgeting to accompany them is not ideal. She stressed the importance of continuing to search for funds that could be put towards implementing the regulations. Yet at the same time she emphasized that “Even if it’s difficult in the first few years, and it’s true that there is a shortage of preschool workers today, we cannot give up on quality, including staff training, properly defining the profession, and creating an educational environment for all children.”

Varda Malka, Director of Knowledge and Tools Development in the Daycare Department at the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services, shared that in keeping with the new regulations there are already many plans in place for creating appropriate training courses for preschool staff that are sensitive to the needs of various subgroups. “We wanted to make the courses accessible in a way that would really speak to everyone and achieve the goal we set out to achieve…raising the quality of the caregiver so that when she enters the preschool she knows why she is there and what to do with the children in order to promote their development.” This includes translating training materials and courses into Arabic and other languages such as Russian.

The third and final session of the day focused on strategies for coping with the COVID-19 crisis and for emerging from the crisis in the sphere of early childhood frameworks. This session, chaired by Taub Center Director General Suzie Patt Benvenisti, primarily discussed how to move forward from the crisis and plan for the future.

First, Prof. Yair Ziv, Chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Haifa, spoke about how gaps that existed before the COVID-19 crisis have widened since the onset of the pandemic in a number of areas including cognitive and social development, physical health and nutrition, and language skills. To plan for the future, including future unforeseen crises, Ziv stressed the importance of gathering adequate data from this time to assess the long-term effects of the pandemic. Furthermore, he warned that “we must not treat the coronavirus as a unique, one-time crisis. Not only is this attitude towards the crisis incorrect, given that we see human history is riddled with crises, but it could even be harmful because it could impair our ability to characterize the gaps that have already developed and will continue exist in the future.”

Dr. Merav Turgeman, Director of Pedagogical Administration at the Department of Preschool Education at the Ministry of Education, spoke about her team’s process of creating a policy plan based on an exploration of the challenges that emerged during the COVID crisis. This process was informed by research, consulting with experts, and running focus groups with children, early childhood staff, and parents. One thing Turgeman emphasized is important to keep in mind in any plan moving forward is how to relate to the parents. “Parental involvement at this age is critical,” she said. “Therefore, any program created for early childhood education must be in partnership, in one way or another, with the parents. Even in the focus groups the parents told us unequivocally that they are completely exhausted. So this has to be taken into account when building any plan.”

In looking to the future, Senior Researcher in the Taub Center Initiative, Dr. Carmel Blank, shared that one of the most important things is that early childhood education and reducing gaps during this critical period be made a high priority by government bodies. To understand those gaps and make progress in limiting them she added, “The Ministry of Education in particular and the other government ministries need to create measurable indicators and set measurable goals, which will help both reduce gaps in the context of recovering from the COVID crisis and afterwards.”

At the conference we also launched a new podcast episode on early childhood educational frameworks that can be listened to on any podcast platform.

The Taub Center and the Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality would like to thank all those who attended and participated in this important conference. Thanks also to the generous support of the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv throughout the entire project, and for making the conference possible.

Publications by The Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality:

The Relationship Between Parental Stress and Young Children’s Screen Time During a COVID-19 Driven National Lockdown

Inequalities are created in early childhood: Early childhood poverty and future academic achievements

Emerging Early Childhood Inequality: On the Relationship between Poverty, Stress, Sensory Stimulation, and Child Development and Achievements

Early Childhood Education and Care in Israel Compared to the OECD: Enrollment Rates, Employment Rates of Mothers, Quality Indices, and Future Achievement