‘We’ll raise bar by weeding out’
Alternative studies show the benefits of educating three-year-olds are short term
The NSW government will weed out poor quality teaching graduates by withholding job offers if universities resist calls to lift course entry standards, the state’s top education bureaucrat says.
Education Department secretary Mark Scott said the government faced opposition from universities towards its bid to raise the bar for entry to study to become a teacher.
“The NSW government — having pushed that point hard but faced significant opposition from universities — is now going to use its power as an employer,” he told the 2018 Outlook Conference yesterday. “They can enrol who they like but if those people are not going to get the jobs … those universities will have to respond.”
Mr Scott’s comments come after the NSW government announced tough criteria for prospective teachers, including a minimum credit-grade point average in their studies. Teacher candidates will have to prove sound practical knowledge and ability, and undergo psychometric testing of cognitive and emotional intelligence to be employed in the NSW school system.
The new Teacher Success Profile policy comes amid concerns school leavers with very low ATARs have been accepted for education degrees.
Mr Scott said he anticipated a decade of “very significant change” for the university sector, which would need to respond to employers increasingly taking charge of the knowledge and skills their employees attained, and how they attained them, and the growing requirement for employees to be lifelong learners.
“I think market realities are going to come to bear on this,” he said. “The idea of ‘come and give us your next four years and $40$50,000’ … I think students are going to query that, parents are going to query that and employers are going to query that.”
Mr Scott said school education policymakers “need to think through the kinds of skills, capabilities and mindsets young people will need to flourish’’.
“There once was a model that you went to school to be educated, and education prepared you for work,’’ he said.
“We know now that what education is preparing people to do is to spend their life learning.”
It’s so simple — pile our threeyear-olds into 15 hours of early childhood education a week for 40 weeks and all these wonderful things will happen. The transition of our little ones to school will be smooth and productive. They will get better NAPLAN results. They will stay longer at school. They will be less likely to need extra support. They will be less likely to become criminals.
If you believe all that, you may also believe in the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. But, but, say the advocates of spending taxpayers’ money on subsidising early education, what about the research?
One problem with this argument is that a lot of the research has been undertaken by parties with conflicts of interest or by bureaucrats given the task of backing up the preferred policies of their political masters.
At least, the Australian report overseen by Susan Pascoe and Deborah Brennan and commissioned by the states and territories acknowledges that the “skills and behaviours (that) establish the foundations for future skills and success are provided in most, but not all, homes”.
Having made this concession, they go on to assert that “quality early childhood education gives all children the best chance of establishing these capabilities. Without these foundations in place, child- ren often struggle at school, and then often go on to become adults who struggle in life.”
According to Pascoe and Brennan, “quality early childhood education makes a significant contribution to achieving educational excellence in schools. There is growing evidence that participation in quality early childhood education improves school readiness and lifts NAPLAN results and PISA (international education achievement) scores.
“Children who participate in high-quality early childhood education are more likely to complete Year 12. High-quality early childhood education also has broader impacts; it is linked with higher levels of employment, income and financial security, improved health outcomes and reduced crime. It helps build the skills children will need for the jobs of the future.”
This summary is in fact a mishmash of results from various studies, including from overseas. For instance, we simply don’t have the data to support the proposition that early childhood education raises Year 12 completion rates because we don’t have linked data. Moreover, the investment in fouryear-old early childhood education is relatively recent.
So let me rain on the parade of optimism about the benefits of early childhood education and the presumed investment returns to taxpayer spending in this area. (Pascoe and Brennan estimate the return to be between $2 and $4 for every dollar spent, which is very low by the standards of these kinds of studies.)
Consider the evidence from the very large Head Start program in the US, in operation for more than 50 years. There are several components to this program but a core feature is the provision of preschooling for three and four-yearolds. The staff to children ratios are low and staff members are expected to be university graduates.
The evaluation of this program indicates that while it helps children settle into school, there are no observable differences in cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes by the time the participating children finish first grade.
There is similar evidence from Britain in relation to the rollout of preschool education that began there in the early 2000s. For every 10 percentage point increase in the proportion of three-year-olds attending preschool, there was a 2 per cent rise in literacy and numeracy scores. Moreover, the effects were found to be shortlived, with the impact essentially zero by the age of seven.
Arguably, these studies are not entirely negative about investment in early education. While the effects may wash out quite quickly, easing transition to school is a worthwhile outcome. Moreover, many studies find that preschool is more beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds relative to other children.
Problems for early childhood education devotees arise from several studies that show government investment in childcare and associated early childhood education can have adverse consequences for children and parents.
In a study about the impact of the provision of childcare by the Quebec government for children from the age of two to five, an important revelation was the substitution of publicly provided care for informal and family-based childcare arrangements.
The authors of the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found several adverse consequences for the children in terms of behavioural issues — measured by aggression and hyperactivity, in particular — and their health. Many parents with children in childcare are only too aware of the repeated episodes of illness their children seem to pick up.
The core finding was “the policy resulted in a rise of anxiety of children exposed to this new program of between 60 per cent and 150 per cent and a decline in motor/social skills of between 8 per cent and 20 per cent”.
The authors also found “famil- ies became more strained with the introduction of the program, as manifested in more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse adult mental health and lower relationship satisfaction for mothers”.
This study should give some of the enthusiastic supporters of childcare and early childhood education pause for thought. In another study, economists used outcome information from the Bologna (Italy) daycare system, which has a reputation for being high quality. For every extra month of daycare that children attended between the age of 0 to two years, it was found that IQ reduced by 0.5 per cent of the same children at age eight to 14. Note that the authors were dealing with a relatively affluent population.
“The magnitude of this negative effect increases with family income. Similar negative impacts are found for personality traits. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis from psychology that children in childcare experience fewer one-on-one interactions, with negative effects in families where such interactions are of higher quality.”
To sum up, my warning is always to be wary of assertions by self-interested academics, bureaucrats or politicians that a policy is evidence-based. There is always a range of studies and the results are often not consistent. This is clearly the case when it comes to the impact of early childhood education and childcare.
Perhaps the strongest proposition to emerge from the literature is that early education potentially can benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Mind you, getting a three-yearold to attend 15 hours of preschool for only 40 weeks a year is a challenge in itself, particularly if the life of the principal carer of the child is not well-structured. It is hardly surprising that the participation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in childcare and preschool is much lower than of children from middle-class families.
If Labor were fair-dinkum about following the evidence on early education, it would concentrate its efforts on these underprivileged children rather than allow the taxpayer subsidies to be snaffled by middle-class parents.
Getting a threeyear-old to attend 15 hours of preschool for only 40 weeks a year is a challenge in itself