The building blocks of equal opportunity: early childhood education
Author: Taub Center Staff Bulletin Articles

It is widely agreed that education is the key to future opportunities, success, and intergenerational economic mobility, and thus, that educational inequality should be reduced among children in Israel.

The prevailing assumption is that inequalities in education can be reduced through changes to the traditional K-12 education system, but studies from around the world show that scholastic-achievement disparities between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds appear already at younger ages.

Recently, the Taub Center published a comprehensive literature review on early childhood. The literature review, conducted by Prof. Yossi Shavit, Prof. Isaac Friedman, Prof. John Gal, and Dana Vaknin, discusses the various ways in which economic inequality experienced in early childhood may lead to inequality in scholastic achievements later in life.

It also maps out the existing evidence about the impact of early childhood education on child development and future achievements.

According to the literature, the environment a child is exposed to in his or her early years is of critical importance to the development of the brain and the central nervous system. This is the time of life when the brain is most malleable.

Negative influences during pregnancy and early childhood, such as stress, can disrupt normal cognitive and emotional development. Not only does childhood poverty have an impact on chronic stress, but there is also evidence that children of high socioeconomic status have an easier time recovering from damage caused by stress during the mother’s pregnancy than those of lower socioeconomic status.

At the same time, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds may suffer from a lack of sensory stimuli and enriching experiences, which can negatively affect the development of cognitive abilities and social and emotional skills, as well as future scholastic achievement.

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The findings of the study are particularly relevant for Israel for two main reasons: Firstly, inequality in scholastic achievements in Israel is among the highest in the developed world.

In fact, the gap between Israel’s top- and bottom-performing students on the 2015 PISA exams was among the widest of all participating countries for each of the test’s sections: scientific literacy, reading literacy, and math. Secondly, a high percentage of children in Israel live in poverty, particularly among the Arab Israeli and Haredi populations (though also in other segments of Israeli society) – and, as mentioned earlier, poverty and scholastic inequality may well be related to one another.

A number of policy options should be explored in Israel in order to address poverty in early childhood and its impact on future scholastic achievements, including:

  • Substantially increasing access to daycare and improving the quality of care: Research has shown that the educational programs with the highest rates of return (where we get the biggest bang for our buck) are those that target the youngest children, from birth to age 5. Yet in Israel, only 20% of children ages 0-3 attend recognized and supervised daycare centers or family daycare (only 10.6% in the Arab Israeli sector). Increasing the supply of high quality early childhood education programs may help to address this issue.
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  • Comprehensive interventions at the community level, focusing on families with young children living in poverty: Poverty and distress can make it hard for parents to provide their children with the best possible developmental environment. Directly and holistically addressing the diverse needs of families and communities in poverty can make a big difference.
  • Directly addressing poverty more comprehensively and effectively: Direct intervention could help to curb the prevalence of child poverty to begin with through measures like increasing social assistance benefits, child allowances (particularly, increasing the allowance paid to families with young children), and work grants for parents.

The existing literature builds a strong case for the importance of early childhood care and education, its impact on future scholastic achievements, and the power of interventions during this critical period to narrow social gaps. It also raises the need for more research in this area and, in particular, for studies examining the situation in Israel that could help inform future policy.

The Taub Center gratefully acknowledges The Bernard Van Leer Foundation for its generous support of the literature review.