Enrollment rates in early childhood education and care (ECEC) frameworks are particularly high in Israel, yet public spending on these frameworks is low and there are a number of indications that the quality of these settings is relatively poor: the ratio of children to staff is high compared to other developed countries, and supporting staff academic qualifications and seniority are low.
Studies carried out in other countries indicate that attending high-quality early childhood frameworks advances children’s cognitive and academic development. This leaves us wondering whether, despite the seemingly poor average quality of the programs in Israel, participation in these frameworks still correlates with later academic achievement, and whether the correlation differs across socioeconomic and population groups.
A recent study published by the Taub Center’s Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality, generously supported by the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv, sheds light on these questions. The study examines the relationship between the enrollment of Israeli children in ECEC frameworks and academic achievement in primary, middle and early high school.
All in all, the study finds evidence suggesting that attending ECEC frameworks does have an effect on later academic achievements, but the effect differs across types of frameworks, the length of time spent in such frameworks, and the age at which the child first attends ECEC frameworks. The researchers also found differences across population groups and socioeconomic strata, as measured by mother’s education level.
When it comes to type of framework, the study found that children between the ages of 2 and 4 who were in preschool or public daycare facilities (maon) got substantially better grades on the Meitzav exams in 5th and 8th grades than those children who stayed at home at these ages. Furthermore, spending time in different types of non-supervised frameworks – home daycare settings (mishpahton), nurseries (peuton), or in the care of a nanny – during these years was found to be no different than care from a family member in terms of children’s future achievements.
This is notable because enrollment rates in preschool or public daycare facilities is higher among children with mothers who have an academic education than among those whose mothers do not (37% compared to 30%, respectively), among children from a strong socioeconomic background (41% and 37% in income quintiles 4 and 5, respectively, compared to 22% and 20% in quintiles 1 and 2), and among Jews compared to Arabs (37% compared to 11%, respectively).
In terms of the length of time spent in these frameworks, children of mothers without an academic education who were in ECEC for four years or more had significantly higher later achievements on the PIRLS reading literacy exam in 4th grade than those who were enrolled for less than four years. In contrast, among children with mothers who have an academic education, four years in ECEC compared to less than four years was not found to have a significant impact on their later achievements. That is, spending more time in early childhood frameworks appears to have a greater effect for children with mothers without higher education.
Unfortunately, the study also finds that children to mothers without higher education, who seem to benefit most from being in the frameworks, tend to be enrolled in ECEC frameworks for fewer years than children whose mothers do have an academic education, for whom the effect is not as substantial.
As for the age at which a child enters ECEC frameworks, the study examined those entering ECEC frameworks at various ages and subsequent academic outcomes on the PISA exam at age 15. Jewish children who entered into ECEC frameworks late, at ages 5-6, had lower reading scores compared to those who entered at ages 2-4. Entering ECEC frameworks before age 2 showed different effects for different groups, yet among both Arab Israeli and Jewish children whose mothers do not have higher education, enrollment in ECEC before the age of 2 seems to actually be negatively associated with later achievements. It is possible that this finding reflects the low quality of ECEC for children under the age of 2 in the Arab sector and among the poorer segments of the Jewish sector.
It is important to understand the relationship between participation in ECEC frameworks and academic achievements because, as has been discussed famously by Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman and other prominent researchers, investing in early childhood has been shown to provide great social and economic returns – both at the individual and national levels; on an individual level, it can advance children’s social and emotional skills and can increase their chances of acquiring an academic education and being employed in the future, and on the national level it contributes to reducing social pathologies such as crime, poverty, and illness.
Given the findings of the study, which show that participation in preschool and public daycare facilities in Israel appears to contribute to the academic development of young children, it appears to be important to increase participation in these frameworks, especially within groups where ECEC seemed to have the greatest effect: among children whose mothers have low education levels, and among children ages 2 and up.