By Lauren Camera
September 15, 2016
Out of 36 countries, the U.S. ranked 29 in preschool enrollment rates for its 3- and 4-year-olds.
No sooner did the two presidential candidates spar over their plans to boost early childhood education than new indicators showed just how far behind the U.S. is in providing access to such programs compared to other industrialized countries.
Out of 36 countries, the U.S. ranked 29 in enrollment rates for its 3- and 4-year-olds, according to Education at a Glance 2016, the 500-page report released Thursday from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
“This is an area where the U.S. is left behind by quite a large margin,” said Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD's Directorate for Education and Skills. “When you look at early childhood education and care, they are quite low by international standards.”
In the U.S., 42% of 3-year-olds and 68% of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood or preschool programs in 2014 – far below the OECD average of 71% of 3-year-olds and 86% of 4-year-olds.
Moreover, the report shows, the figures for the U.S. are nearly unchanged since 2005, when the enrollment rate was 39 percent for children aged 3 and 68 percent for children aged 4.
“There is a lot for the U.S. to do to catch up,” Schleicher said. “At the moment it compares to countries like Mexico.”
France, Belgium, Israel, Spain, Norway, Germany, Sweden and Italy all have enrollments rate of 90 percent and above for both age groups.
The OECD is a coalition of countries that reports on the social and economic well-being of its member countries and publishes regular outlooks, annual overviews and comparative statistics on various subjects, including education.
The report looked at an array of education and workforce variables – gender gaps, teacher pay, economic mobility, funding and more – but its focus on early education is timely in the U.S., where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump went toe-to-toe this week with their respective childcare and early education proposals.
While Democratic candidates have historically proposed robust preschool plans, Trump laid out what could be the most extensive proposal by any GOP candidate to date, drawing the ire of some conservatives who argued he’s pushing the party into supporting a new federal mandate.
But affordable early childhood care has ballooned as a campaign issue recently as it's become more and more expensive and as research builds regarding how impactful it can be in ensuring kids don’t fall behind.
“You can ask yourself does it really matter,” Schleicher said. “One way to look at this is how does early childhood education play out in skills of students in school."
According to the OECD report, Students in the U.S. who attended preschool at some point were less likely to be low performers on an internationally benchmarked math exam at the age of 15 than those who had no early education. Moreover, attending preschool for more than one year also boosted performance in math, further reducing their chances of being low performers.
Meanwhile, 41 percent of students who did not attend an early education program had low performance in mathematics, while only 24 percent of students who attended more than one year of preschool were low performers.
“You can really see a big gap between those with no pre-primary education and those [with pre-primary education],” Schleicher said. “That gap is quite significant in many counties. That’s not all due to early childhood education, but overall there seems to be good indication that it matters.”
Among the many other findings in the report: The U.S. still ranks high when it comes to the number of people earning degrees, but other countries are catching up, and tuition in other countries is nowhere near as pricey. On the K-12 front, educators in the U.S. teach for longer hours, but also get paid more, on average.
And, the U.S. boasts some of the lowest unemployment rates for people with varying levels of education, but it also has one of the largest gender disparities among OECD countries when it comes to earnings.
Lauren Camera is an education reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She’s covered education policy and politics for nearly a decade and has written for Education Week, The Hechinger Report, Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was a 2013 Spencer Education Fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, where she conducted a reporting project about the impact of the Obama administration’s competitive education grant, Race to the Top.