Are all early childhood education experiences equally cost-effective?

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The wide range of opportunities for early childhood education means children can often have very different education experiences on their way to primary school. 

International evidence shows that investing in high-quality early childhood programs can have large economic returns, especially for children from socially disadvantaged groups. In response, developing countries are looking to increase public investments in the early years, especially in early education programs. As they do so, one of the challenges policymakers face is deciding what to fund. After all, there are a wide range of opportunities for early childhood education that already exist in local settings such as playgroups and kindergartens. As a result, different children can often have very different early childhood education experiences on their way to primary school.

To overcome this challenge, policymakers might begin by looking at the existing evidence on the effectiveness of early childhood education programs. The majority of research from developing countries that measures effectiveness of early childhood education programs are is evaluation studies, which typically compare children who attended preschools with those who never attended.
Some studies might compare children who attended preschools with improved quality to those who attended non-improved preschools. However, such studies may not adequately capture the reality of many local settings, where children enroll in different types of early childhood programs at different ages, and for different lengths of time. In other words, policymakers need evidence on the effects of early childhood education programs by comparing the different alternative early childhood education pathways children actually take.
Take, for example, Indonesia, where early childhood services are overseen by multiple government departments and agencies, and where each provides a variety of different programs. Some primarily offer play-based care (playgroups or kelompok bermain as they are referred to locally) while others focus more on academic preparation for primary school (kindergartens or taman kanak-kanak and raudhotul atfal). Despite formal public guidelines about the intended age group and length of programs, families make personal decisions about where, when, and for how long to enroll their children in early childhood programs. This results in children often having very different pathways to primary school.
In a recent World Bank working paper, we show that even among poor villages in Indonesia, there is considerable variation in early education pathways. Unsurprisingly, we find that these early education pathways are highly correlated with family and community characteristics. For example, mother’s education level, family income, and the quality of early childhood services in the community are all positively correlated with the probability of children’s enrollment in both playgroups and kindergartens rather than enrollment in only playgroups or only kindergartens.
This self-selection into different early childhood education pathways has potential longer-term consequences. We leveraged data collected as part of an impact evaluation in rural Indonesia to examine how the sequence, timing, and duration of attending different types of early childhood programs (between the ages of 3 and 5) predict subsequent academic outcomes in primary school (between the ages of 6 and 9).
The test scores of children who enrolled in a full sequence of playgroup and then kindergarten are about one grade level ahead of their peers who had never enrolled in any early childhood education – holding constant child, family, and community characteristics such as age, household wealth and average quality of preschool services in the community. Moreover, children who enrolled in a full sequence of both playgroup and kindergarten were about one semester ahead of their peers who enrolled either in only kindergarten or only playgroup.

The cost-effectiveness of various early childhood education pathways.  Note that 95 percent confidence intervals are shown. Source: Calculations based on Table 3 and 5a in Nakajima et al. 2016.

In rural Indonesia, early childhood education is most effective when children enroll in a combination of playgroup and kindergarten at the intended ages. Figure 1 summarizes our estimates and shows that for every $100 spent on early childhood education, children gain approximately an additional month of learning. However, Figure 1 also underscores that the cost-effectiveness of early childhood education depends on the pathway of services taken. The cost-effectiveness of enrolling in only playgroup and only kindergarten are not distinguishable from zero. In addition, the cost-effectiveness of enrolling in both playgroup and kindergarten but at a later age (1 year of playgroup (age 5) and 1 year of kindergarten (age 6)) is also indistinguishable from zero (see grey bars).
In the Indonesian context, the added effect of enrolling in playgroup then kindergarten is likely due to the different curricula used in each of these program settings. Child development research has shown that children’s development is best supported when they receive increasingly complex, differentiated learning experiences.
Play-based learning helps children develop their fine and gross motor skills, develop language and socialization skills, and become creative problem solvers. However, playgroups in Indonesia were not designed to provide multiple years of unique, developmentally appropriate learning. As a result, children who subsequently enroll in kindergarten are more likely to avoid redundancy in their learning experiences by having exposure to different, more academically-focused curricula.
This suggests that focusing on providing access to both playgroups and kindergartens to young children at the appropriate ages can optimize public investments in early childhood education. Given that the current policy debates in Indonesia are centered on universal preprimary education, these findings are timely.
Here, we’ve highlighted Indonesia as an example. What are the different early childhood education pathways that are common in other developing countries? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Amer Hasan

Senior Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank Group

Nozomi Nakajima

PhD candidate, Harvard University

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