The single most important focus area, often to the near exclusion of all others, of India's school education system are the tenth class results. The excessive importance attached to tenth class results stands in stark contrast to the near complete indifference to evaluating performance outcomes of a students education leading upto his tenth class.
In particular, even as kindergarten education is increasingly becoming a norm across the country, and a natural initiation path for children into private schools, the education system continue to overlook the importance of early childhood education (ECE).
This state of affairs comes even as evidence mounts suggesting that good quality ECE is far more important in determining life outcomes than any subsequent interventions. In other words, efforts put on delivering good quality ECE will yield much greater results than the same or even greater efforts put on improving tenth class results.
In this context, David Leonhardt draws attention to a study by Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and others which suggests that kindergarten can have lasting effects on students. They examined the life paths of almost 12,000 children who had been part of a well-known education experiment in Tennessee in the 1980s and who are now about 30, well started on their adult lives.
They found that while the impact of kindergarten education faded and largely disappeared by junior high, based on test scores, students who learn more in kindergarten appear to earn more and save for retirement, to be less likely to become teenage parents and even to be less likely to die young. They also find that being in a good kindergarten class had a relatively constant effect on earnings across income levels - for poor, middle-class and high-income children, being in a standout class – one that, in technical terms, made an extra standard deviation of progress over the course of the year – led to about a 7% increase in annual earnings at age 27.
These students were found making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too. As David Leonhardt points out, invoking the "winner-takes-all" theory, even small differences in skills and knowledge acquired through early childhood education can have a bigger effect on pay, especially at the upper parts of the income distribution.
They even estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year - the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers. In other words, students who had a teacher at the 75th percentile of ability — based on how much her students learned over the course of the year, as measured by end-of-year tests — could expect to earn a combined $320,000 more over the course of their careers than students who had a teacher at the 25th percentile. This estimate itself is probably on the lower side since it doesn’t take into account social gains, like better health and less crime.
About the causes for these differences, they feel that good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance.
These findings may have important lessons for the education system in India. The existing education architecture here does not provide for any link between the anganwadi centers, which provide nutritional support for children in the 1-3 year age groups, and the regular schools starting from the age of 6. ECE centers are not formally institutionalized into the government education system in the same way as anganwadis and primary education. The Right to Education Act, which too recognizes education only from the age of 6-14, also overlooks the ECE dimension.
While a few ECE centers are provided for in the Rajiv Vidya Mission (the successor to the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan), there is no mandatory requirement to establish such centers. In other words, ECE centers are not part of the education chain starting with anganwadi centers.
Apart from the aforementioned value in capturing the full value in the education chain, ECE centers can also play an important role as feeding centers to government-run primary schools. Given the widespread popularity of kindergarten education even among the poor, especially in urban India, and the deficiency of government-run ECE centers, it was inevitable that private kindergartens rise to prominence. Further, once parents send their children to these private institutions, they are more likely to keep their children with private schools.
In simple terms, government-run ECE centers, by capturing the children very early in the education value chain, provides the best option for stemming the declining enrollment in government schools.
Update 1 (6/8/2010)
More by David Leonhardt on the debate surrounding the importance of KG education in particular and education in general.
Update 2 (7/10/2011)
Judith Scott Clayton has this summary of studies that highlight the benefits of early childhood education.