General News, The myth of early childhood education: What the science really says, 17.10.2014

The myth of early childhood education: What the science really says

Childcare infrastructure is expensive. A placement within a nursery in West Germany costs at least €1200 (1). Politicians want these expenditures to be seen as "investments in early childhood education" (2). The sooner the education of children begins, the more their ability to work as an adult increases and the long-term benefits of education spending, the higher the returns are for the state. They rely on the education model calculations of the economy and the OECD. Their calculations put forth the following novel relationship: Institutional support improves the skills of young people in mathematics, science and reading comprehension and thus their chances to acquire higher levels of education, the higher qualification, in turn, increases their chances on the labor market. Subsequently, the structural unemployment decreases, which, on one hand relieves the social systems and on the other hand increases the income of the state and social insurance (3). More childcare brings more prosperity, so is their promise.

This train of thought requires, under any circumstances, that institutional care actually increases academic performance. This can only be verified by long-term, time consuming studies that, to date, are available only in small numbers and almost exclusively for the Anglo-American world. A central observer of the proponents of early institutional education is the American education economist James Heckman. His argument is based on the observation of American breakfast programs ("early childhood intervention") from the 1960s and 70s. The main target group of these projects was children from disadvantaged African-American families with additional "handicaps". They had an intellectual deficit, lived in uncertain situations or deprived areas. It is hardly surprising that early onset support programs improved the chances in life of these children. These programs, however, have little in common with German daycare education. They are much more like parent training and family therapy, applied in this country by psychotherapy and clinical social work (4). Heckman is convinced by these programs especially because they are not targeted at all children, not even all the socio-economically disadvantaged; but particularly neglected children: children who, in their first years, barely receive care from their parents (5). In conclusion to his findings, more funding for potential German daycare conveys either methodological arbitrariness or a deeply pessimistic suspicion of educational incompetence in parents.

Studies from Canada offer more reliable conclusions about the effects of institutional care for young children: Since 1997, the Government of the French-speaking province of Quebec subsidizes coverage "Daycare" contributions, while in the English-speaking provinces child care remained a private matter to be organized with parents. This created a historically rare opportunity to quasi-experimental field studies: Researchers analyzed school readiness of 4-5 year old children before and after the start of the day-care expansion. The result: the measured cognitive skills for school preparation values ??deteriorated. According to the researchers, this shows the effects of a poorly funded day care policy. Even children from "less educated" parents’ houses seem not to profit from this policy: The school readiness values ??deteriorated particularly when the mother had a low educational attainment. Even more revealing is a comparative before/after study between Quebec and the rest of Canada on the behaviour of 2-4 year old children and their parents: With the use of day care both anxiety and aggressiveness rose among the children (6). Also, in the U.S. long-term study of the "National Early Child Care Research Network" (NICHD), researchers observed a greater restlessness and aggression among children as a result of early care outside the family (7). Unbalanced children are, as every teacher knows, hard to teach (8). An "early intervention policy" ignoring a child’s psychological observations can thus jeopardize the quality of education. And that inevitably costs prosperity, without even including the incalculable future problems.

(1) According to Gisela Erler, founder of PME Family Services GmbH, a "good daycare spot in West Germany with all the trimmings " costs about €1,400 per month. A month in a daycare center would definitely not cost less than €1,200. See: Henrike Rossbach: „Wir erleben eine mentale Zeitenwende", Gisela Erler, Geschäftsführerin der PME Familienservice GmbH, über alte Denkmuster und neue Chancen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung vom 10. März 2007, p.10
(2) Regarding the educational and family policy context of this argument:
(3) Prototypical of this line of argument: C. Anger / A. Plünnecke / M. Troeger: “Education - Investment in the early childhood field”, Cologne, 2007
(4) Heckmann refers to the "Perry Preschool Project (PPP, Experiment, 1962-1967) and the Carolina Abecedarian Project (CAP, Experiment, 1972-1977). For Heckman, the studies on these projects are methodical and particularly reliable because of the very long observation periods and the width of their results on cognitive and non-cognitive criteria for success. Cf: Hans-Peter Heekerens, “Die Auswirkung frühkindlicher Bildung auf Schulerfolg - eine methodenkritische Bestandsaufnahme”, p.311-325, in: Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation, 30. Jg., 3/2010, pp.317-318
(5) Heckman: "The returns to early childhood programs are the highest for disadvantaged children who do not receive substantial amounts of parental investment in the early years. The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important yet scarce resource. The quality of parenting is not always closely linked to family income or parental education." J. Heckman: Schools, skills and synapes, IZA DP No. 3515, Bonn 2008, p.25,
(6) See: Hans-Peter Heekerens: Die Auswirkung frühkindlicher Bildung auf Schulerfolg, op. cito, 3/2010, pp.319-320. Heekerens refers to the following studies: Baker, et al: “What can we learn from Quebec's universal childcare programmes”, Toronto 2006; Lefevre et al: “Child Care Policy and cognitive outcomes of children: Results from a large scale quasi-experiment on universal child care in Canada”, Montreal, 2008.
(7) Jay Belsky et al: “Are there long-term effects of early child care in?” March/April 2007, pp.681-701
(8) See: Steve Biddulph: “Das Geheimnis glücklicher Babys”, Munich, 2007, p.69