Early Childhood Education


Healthy and curious children are the global leaders of tomorrow. Unfortunately, an estimated 250 million children globally fail to meet their developmental milestones (Black, et al., 2016). This means nearly one-third of all the world’s children are entering elementary grades without the cognitive, social-emotional, and language skills they need to fulfill their potential and become productive, contributing citizens. Pre-primary education helps children build these skills for academic and life-long success.


Research abounds regarding the positive impact of pre-primary education. For example, in Bangladesh, children in high-quality, USAID-funded preschool program outperformed a control group in verbal and nonverbal reasoning, as well as school readiness (Aboud, 2006). A World Bank evaluation of a community-based preschool program in Mozambique found that children were 24% more likely to enroll in primary school at the proper age and with the necessary “readiness” skills, if they had attended preschool (Martinez, Naudeau, & Pereira, 2012).

Countries will only be able to reach and exceed their development goals when their youngest children get a strong start. Attending pre-primary education increases school attainment (number of years of schooling), which in turn increases adult employment and lifelong earnings (Nores & Barnett, 2010). At an individual level, failure to reach one’s full developmental potential results in an average adult income 26% lower than one’s more advantaged peers (Richter, et al., 2016).

When children cannot reach their full potential, a nation’s prospects for economic growth are limited. For every dollar spent on preschool programs, there is a $4 to $9 return to individuals and society (Center on the Developing Child, 2009). At the national level, it is now clear that the cost of failure to provide adequate early childhood services is several times higher than the cost of effective interventions.


Education and health outcomes are inextricably linked during the early childhood years. Malnutrition during this time can result in hindered cognitive development and impeded intelligence quotient (IQ) (Waber, et al., 2014). These adverse effects of malnutrition often result in delayed school entry, early school termination, poor school performance, and reduced work capacity, resulting in lower lifetime economic achievement (Walker, Chang, Powell, & Grantham-McGregor, 2005) (Waber, et al., 2014). Focused cross-sectoral coordination for promoting healthy early development is essential for helping ensure that all children enter primary school ready to learn and excel. A guiding principle of USAID’s Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy (2014–2025) includes providing and strengthening coordinated planning and programming across sectors, including health and education (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2016). We support similar coordination for future initiatives.


Emergent literacy and positive attitudes towards reading serve as the foundation of more complex reading and writing skills and enable the lifelong pursuit of learning (Department of Education and Child Development, 2013). USAID has set ambitious goals for improved reading outcomes and has made some progress towards those goals for primary school-aged students. Yet, many children are not reading successfully, in no small part because of the lack of foundational skills when they enter Grade 1. By providing effective emergent literacy support in the pre-primary years, USG programs can contribute to improved reading outcomes and other critical skills and abilities of future thinkers and leaders.

The skills and attitudes that a child develops in relation to math concepts throughout the pre-primary period lay the foundation for academic success across subject areas (Duncan, et al., 2008) (Clements & Sarama, 2011). Existing data suggests there is a global crisis in the acquisition and development of math skills. Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) results in 10 countries showed that Grade 2 students struggled with basic math skills, such as addition and subtraction (Nielsen, 2014). For example, nearly 61% of Grade 2 students tested in Zambia were unable to correctly solve a single conceptual subtraction problem (Brombacher et al., 2015).

Focusing on reading and math starting at primary school age is not early enough to significantly improve learning outcomes. Interventions must begin earlier, both at home and in school, for young learners to build critical foundational skills. These skills are necessary to prepare children for future leadership of informed societies and capable workforces.


The evidence for and momentum around early childhood education is building. The United States is making progress towards an international goal for all children to have access to quality early learning opportunities by 2030. In April 2016, the World Bank launched a new initiative focused on increased investment in the early years and formed an Early Childhood Development Action Network in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and, later, the World Health Organization. A recent series in the renowned medical journal, The Lancet, outlined new evidence about early intervention, including data about the impact of intervention, the higher scale impact on the economy, and the epigenetic far-reaching effects (Richter, et al., 2016).

The time is right for the U.S. Government to embrace the empirical evidence and align its foreign assistance investment strategy with its global education goals. Approaches for early childhood interventions must be adapted to meet the specific contexts, but core best-practices exist and should be integrated across sectors for optimal early learning. Every child deserves the best possible foundation for lifelong learning and thinking. The U.S. Government and should seize this opportunity to do more for our youngest children.

We specifically recommend that USAID’s next Education Strategy include support for early childhood care and education, including pre-primary education and linkages with multi-sectoral interventions that support child development from ages 0–8.

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