Despite the fact that the number of students enrolled in Portuguese schools and the number of qualified Portuguese students has been increasing, Portugal continues to present results far below the European average. At the beginning of this month, the Portuguese government created a work group to consider future developments of Preschool education. In Portugal, there are still many children that are not enrolled in kindergartens and the percentage of parents that face high costs by putting their children on a preschool is increasing with the economic crisis. Would a higher investment on Preschool education in Portugal bring valuable results for the country?
First, it is relevant to ask if early education can actually influence future education and earnings. Many countries seem to believe so. Finland has had universal access to full-daycare and preschool since 1996, claiming it is one of the causes for its successful later education results. Even President Obama recently proposed an expansion of early childhood education programs in order to expand its benefits for every child. The US is planning to invest $75 billion in preschool and studies show that for each dollar spent, $11 in economic benefits will be generated. Both Neurological studies – that state that 90% of brain growth occurs during the first five years of life – and several economic studies support this. Chetty et al.(2010) held a particularly interesting study on how kindergarten classroom affects earnings and other outcomes, collecting evidence from Project Star. They conclude that early education has substantial long-term impacts on later outcomes such as college attendance or earnings. They find however an interesting element. Preschool quality does not have a direct impact on 8th grade test scores. They state that a possible explanation for this “fade-out” effect is the fact that what is learned in kindergarten that influences adult outcomes may be non-cognitive skills such as persistency, self-discipline, leadership, adaptability and other social skills. It may be that the low results on adult education and employment outcomes of Portugal are related to this lack of non-cognitive skills. Research should be made in order to conclude if this is the case.
If we believe that the lack of teaching of non-cognitive skills in early ages may end up harming education results in Portugal, it would make sense to rethink the policies on early education. Taking the example of Nordic countries, there may be two options. The first would be extend the maternity/paternity license so that parents could stay at home with their children and teach them those skills. However, and being Portugal one of the countries with the highest income inequality this would possibly aggravate it as that education would probably depend on the family’s income). The other hypothesis, and also following the US example, would be to make kindergarten education accessible to all and to improve its quality.
Studies must be done to perform a cost-benefit analysis of both hypotheses. Nevertheless, based on other countries experiences and on literature, I believe an extension of preschool education would have extremely positive long-term impacts on Portugal.