In the first of our series of guest blogs on the five proposed outcome-oriented post-2015 global education targets, Abbie Raikes, programme specialist at UNESCO, looks at the challenges of measuring early childhood development and learning.
We now know that early childhood, far from being a time of “just playing,” lays the groundwork for learning, well-being and health in adulthood. The returns on investments in early childhood are among the highest in education. However, the world’s young children often do not receive the attention, resources, and support they need for healthy development.
Reliable information on young children’s development and learning can spur action. Many countries are surprised when they learn how many children are denied the conditions for healthy development, and how quickly inequity takes root, even within the first years of life. Early childhood development’s presence in proposed targets for the post-2015 development framework is a great step forward, and highlights the need for data for global, regional and national tracking.
Is it really possible to measure early childhood development (ECD) and learning? The answer is clearly yes. While there are certainly important individual differences, human development follows predictable patterns that lay the groundwork for reliable, valid measurement. We have strong evidence from around the world demonstrating that children’s development and learning before school is related to outcomes later in life. A big step towards “learning for all” is taken when all children are given a good start in life.
With this in mind, the conversation has turned to how best to support good measurement of early childhood development and learning, from the national to the global level – and specifically, how the post-2015 “data revolution” can work on behalf of young children.
There is agreement that good measurement must strike a balance between the science of early development, the technical strength of the instrument, and the context and culture that the child knows best. Some have raised concerns about using assessments with such young children. These concerns underscore the importance of careful planning. Well-constructed assessments do no harm and data are never used for “high-stakes” decision-making. Assessments of ECD ideally have the following characteristics:
- Assess several domains of development, including language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive, rather than knowledge of pre-academic competencies alone. Children’s development is not “domain-specific” – for example, language, physical and social/emotional development all work together to propel cognitive development. Developmental milestones such as children’s abilities to resolve conflict in a socially appropriate way and balance while walking on a line are important indicators of a child’s overall functioning.
- Reflect recent science on early development. Scientific understanding of young children’s development is advancing all the time, offering more accurate predictors of children’s development. A good example is the faculty known as “executive function,” which is not based on knowledge but on a child’s ability to focus attention and think before acting.
- Respond to each child’s unique developmental timing. Measures should be designed to take into account the varying pace of development in different domains. Not all children develop competencies on the same schedule – the question is whether children’s development is on track when taken as a whole, rather than whether a child can “pass” a specific item at a specific time.
- Reflect cultural influences on young children’s development, to measure accurately the full range of competencies that young children possess. While people everywhere follow similar developmental patterns, how these skills are displayed varies based on the context and culture where people live. It can be difficult to find a common set of items that are relevant to young children across cultures. This tension must be acknowledged when considering measurement for global or regional comparisons.
The ECD community, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, the World Bank and the Brookings Institution, is now sharing expertise and data and discussing new ways of meeting the growing demand for reliable information on ECD. UNICEF was at the forefront with the development of the MICS-Early Childhood Development Index, for which data now have been collected in more than 50 countries.
There are several existing regional initiatives as well, including the Regional Project on Child Development Indicators (PRIDI; Inter-American Development Bank), the West African Prototype (UNICEF); the Early Development Instrument (McMaster University); and the East Asia Pacific Child Development Scales (Hong Kong University). NGOs such as Save the Children have also developed measures with strong technical strength. The existing work provides a strong basis for consistent, reliable ECD measurement. The key now is to coordinate and collaborate to use the existing data and develop new approaches as needed.
– Read the second in this series by Ray Adams on The challenges and rewards of measuring global learning after 2015.