Opinion: Measuring the Value of ECE

Date: 13 August 2018

We think early childhood education (ECE) matters. It's more than just participation in ECE services though. What matters for preschool-aged children, parents and for our economy is the skills acquired through quality ECE.

Spending time enrolled in a quality ECE service helps children become prepared for their schooling journey, and establishes resilience and success in their early lives. These competence and character qualities - being a competent and confident learner in the preschool setting - are talked about as part of the ECE curriculum, Te Whaariki. These characteristics are also key in determining individual well-being and the prosperity of our society.

The New Zealand government has in recent times embraced the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) system as a key mechanism for indicating an internationally comparable and robust measure of educational progress and attainment at school in children aged 15-years. As an example, PISA assesses the learning outcomes in reading, mathematics, science and collaborative problem-solving.

It assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society and the important knowledge and skills needed in adult life. Students complete a two-hour test and a background questionnaire. Principals' complete a school questionnaire.

In December 2018, results from the most recent PISA cycle will become available.

However, both the methodology and results from PISA have attracted widespread criticism, specifically that PISA is unable to achieve its basic claim - that it is able to accurately capture the full range of students' abilities and compare them across the world. Thus the results of the latest cycle will no doubt be the subject of intensive scrutiny and criticism, internationally and here in New Zealand.

As it stands, New Zealand has declined in three PISA 2015 performance measures (science, mathematics and reading) since 2006. On the Equity area, New Zealand has maintained a stable result (boys versus girls, social background and immigrant students). It is arguable the extent to which these performance measures can point to the ECE experience of the child versus any one of a number of other influences.

For the ECE sector, the issue is more fundamental. How do we measure the progress of a child, in order to establish the value of participating in ECE in New Zealand? How can parents, or the government for that matter, determine that their investment is well-spent? How can the ECE sector claim that continued high levels of investment, or even more investment, is good value? And, how useful are measures for 15 year-olds as indicators of success in early childhood education?

The Efficacy of Measuring Outcomes in ECE

One of the problems the ECE sector faces is that while the research evidence points to the wonderful things participation in quality early childhood education delivers for our youngest learners, we have no reliable current way of showing that early childhood education services in New Zealand currently deliver at that researched level. And for those that vary from the research, either up or down, by how much? We have no reliable way to measure the performance of our sector here in New Zealand. And we need to.

We also need to stop only quoting overseas outdated research which is often extrapolated to the New Zealand ECE sector and held up to say - "see!"  But this is often not based on our services in our country and it is not based on our children's actual experiences.

We must get better at measuring to drive ongoing improvement; to be transparent; and as a motivator for change. After all, wouldn't it be good to be able to demonstrate once and for all to government that further investment in ECE is worthwhile?

Why PISA is not a good benchmark for ECE

PISA is used extensively as a measure of the effectiveness of ECE participation, in the absence of any other live performance measure. PISA relies on the learning performance of 15-year-olds and tries to attribute back the student's ECE experiences as indicative of how they are going at age 15. Of course, to do so is perilous and unreliable.

There's a lot that can happen in 15 years of a child's life that could arguably impact on their learning.

The problem remains that we do not have a performance measure that links a child's learning experiences and outcomes at any particular age with the expectations of Te Whaariki or against the performance benchmarks set in numerous research.

A better direction of travel

With the recent refresh of the ECE curriculum, Te Whaariki, came a challenge. Te Whaariki 2017 has a reduced set of indicators, from over 120 to only 20. Many early learning services have welcomed the refreshed curriculum.

The ECC has expressed caution, however, that the enthusiasm with being faced with a mere 20 indicators and how easy that picture may be to work with, ignores the fact that those who monitor the early learning sector will also be motivated and enthusiastic to take a closer look at the performance of the sector; and what it is doing to achieve the indicators or beyond.

What is positive, in light of the historic difficulties working out how to measure progress for children participating in early learning in New Zealand, is the fact that the curriculum acknowledges the wide-ranging variance among early learning services in New Zealand and is leaving the problem to each and every service to work out how it will interpret Te Whaariki; how it will seek to implement Te Whaariki in their own context; and (therefore) how the individual service will measure success... or at least progress for every child.

The alternative is imposed standards - something the early learning sector lives in dread of.

So, it is up to individual early learning services to solve the problem, rather than the collective sector. Not a bad way to go. And nowhere to hide.

This problem of measuring progress needs to be solved. It has been around long enough and remains the elephant in the room for many early learning forums.

Peter Reynolds

Chief Executive Officer

Early Childhood Council