Preschool Enrollment: U.S. (and Arizona) vs. the World

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Concern and complaints abound over U.S. students' low scores on international tests compared to other industrialized countries. The favorite culprits accused of causing the disparity are, in no special order: (1) Failing schools; (2) Failing teachers; (3) Failing parents (4) Low expectations; (5) Lack of common curriculum; (6) Too much common curriculum; (7) Inadequate funding; (8) Socioeconomic inequality. I'm sure I missed a few.

But one possible culprit that doesn't come up as often as it should is lack of opportunities for quality early childhood education. The U.S. sits near the bottom of the list when it comes to the percentage of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in educational programs. Is that one reason for our low scores on the international tests? Maybe so, maybe no, but it should be a larger part of our national discussion, even among the privatization/"education reform" crowd, who are all about charter schools and vouchers for private schools. If they care more about education than privatization, maybe those folks should be more into promoting early childhood education.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) administers the PISA international student testing, and it analyzes the results as well as other relevant educational information. It recently published Starting Strong 2017, a 200 page document focusing on early childhood education and care. Starting on page 128, it compares the enrollment rates of 3 and 4 year olds in pre-primary education in 2014 in about 35 countries. In the U.S., 40 percent of three year olds were in educational programs compared to an OECD average of 70 percent. Only five countries had lower numbers. Among four year olds, the U.S. enrollment was 70 percent compared to an OECD average of 85 percent. Only three countries had lower numbers.

Other industrialized countries favor early childhood education more than we do, and they tend to score higher on international tests. I'm not saying there's a direct cause and effect going on here, but it's certainly an important variable we should throw into the mix when we talk about improving education.

Not surprisingly, Arizona is well below the U.S. average. A total of 55 percent of 3 and 4 year olds are enrolled in early childhood programs in the U.S. In Arizona, the number is closer to 35 percent. We lag behind the rest of the country by roughly the same percentage as the U.S. lags behind the rest of the industrialized world.

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