Early Childhood Education and Long-Term Outcomes in 12 Low- and Middle-Income Countries

by M. Najeeb Shafiq

[Photo courtesy of World Bank.]

As far as education policies go, few are as widely endorsed as early childhood education (ECE) programs. Policymakers are persuaded by compelling evidence from programs in Michigan—the Perry PreSchool Project—and North Carolina (the Abecedarian Early Intervention Project). These studies show that program participants go on to perform better in school, such as better test scores and high school graduation rates. More recent evidence from Michigan has followed program participants into adulthood, and finds that they enjoy higher earnings. Based on this medium-term and long-term evidence, low- and middle-income countries are considering the expansion of early childhood education (ECE) programs, such as universal preschool, kindergartens, and daycare centers.  

But should low- and middle-income countries expect similar ECE benefits? Probably not. The Michigan and North Carolina programs were high dosage and holistic. Professor James Heckman—a Nobel Laureate and author of the Michigan studies—has repeatedly emphasized that only high-quality (and relatively costly) programs yield large benefits. In contrast, the ECE programs low- and middle-income countries are considering scaling are cheaper and lower quality.

My World Bank colleagues, Amanda Devercelli and Alexandria Valerio, and I asked the question: Are there long-term benefits from ECE in low- and middle-income income countries? To our knowledge, only one study—from Jamaica—had compared adulthood outcomes of ECE participants and non-participants.

[Photo courtesy of World Bank.]

With the support of a World Bank grant, we therefore compared the long-term outcomes of ECE participants and non-participants in 12 low- and middle-income countries: Armenia, Bolivia, Colombia, Georgia, Ghana, Kenya, Lao PDR Macedonia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Vietnam and China. We used cross-sectional data from the STEP Skills Measurement surveys carried out between 2012 and 2014, which surveyed adults aged 15-64 living in urban areas.

For each respondent, we have their self-report of participation in a formally organized ECE facility such as kindergarten, crèche, daycare, nursery school or Montessori prior to entering the formal education system. The STEP data allowed us to consider a variety of long-term outcomes:

  • educational attainment;
  • adulthood cognitive skills (specifically, a reading proficiency assessment);
  • adulthood socio-emotional skills (including self-reported Big Five personality traits, grit, and patience); and
  • labor market outcomes (including self-reported participation, skill-use at work, and earnings).

The nature of the data did not permit us to explore the causal effect of ECE on long-term outcomes. Nevertheless, we were able to use statistical methods to explore the correlations between ECE participation and long-term outcomes. We found positive associations between ECE and long-term outcomes in most of the countries. Notably, we find ECE participants had higher educational attainment in 11 of the 12 countries. On average, ECE participants had nearly an additional year of schooling, holding other factors constant. However, we found mixed evidence of ECE and higher adult cognitive and socio-emotional skills, and labor market outcomes.

[Photo courtesy of World Bank.]

Our comparative approach allowed us to identify success stories. For instance, ECE participants in Colombia consistently outperform non-ECE participants on a variety of long-term outcomes; it is therefore worth examining the strengths of the Colombian ECE systems. In contrast, ECE participants in Sri Lanka and Vietnam perform worse than non-participants; the problematic aspects of their ECE programs should be identified and avoided.
To the ongoing policy deliberations, our results suggest that the realization of long-term benefits will require better quality ECE programs than have been offered in the past and are currently offered. For guidance on high quality ECE programs, policymakers in other countries should examine the design features of the programs in Michigan, North Carolina, and even Colombia.

* The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive Directors of the World Bank or the governments they represent.

M. Najeeb Shafiq is an is associate professor of education, economics, and international affairs.