Laura Bornfreund at Early Ed Watch has a useful post comparing U.S. investment in preschool with other developed countries. The other developed countries are those in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD includes such countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, etc. Ms. Bornfreund uses official data from the OECD’s annual Education at a Glance, 2010.
What she finds is that for U.S. students enrolled in preschool, the class sizes and spending per student are comparable or even “better” (greater spending per student, smaller class sizes) than the OECD average. However, the U.S. has a lower percentage of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in preschool than the OECD average. As she points out, among 3 and 4 year olds, several European countries have near 100 percent enrollment in preschool.
Of course, we don’t know the quality of this preschool in all these countries. However, at the least this illustrates a political difference between the U.S. and many other developed countries.
I suspect that for many of these countries, there is very little rigorous social science evidence of the long-term effectiveness of the preschool program. Yet many of these countries invest a great deal in near-universal preschool. The political climate is such that these governments are willing to invest in preschool simply because the concept makes sense. Rigorous empirical evidence is not required.
As a good policy wonk, I of course prefer to have research findings of program effectiveness. Even if we agree that the program is worth funding, research can point to ways to improve the program. But, among developed countries, the U.S. is somewhat unusual in demanding exhaustive evidence of program effectiveness for many social programs, including early childhood programs. This reflects a political climate that is suspicious of government intervention. No one can wave a magic wand and change this political climate, and in any event, there are pros and cons of being suspicious of government intervention. The need for demonstrated research results for government investments in early childhood programs is simply a reality of the U.S. political context.