Early Childhood Education

IEA Preprimary Project


The IEA Preprimary Project is an unprecedented multinational study of preprimary care and education sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). High/Scope Educational Research Foundation served as the international coordinating center, and High/Scope staff, working collaboratively with researchers in seventeen countries, were responsible for sampling, instrument development, data analysis, and the writing of five published reports and one in press. The purpose of the study is to identify how process and structural characteristics of community preprimary settings affect children’s language and cognitive development at age 7. The study is unique because many diverse countries participated, using common instruments to measure family background, teachers’ characteristics, setting structural characteristics, experiences of children, and children’s developmental status.

The study is rooted theoretically in the ecological systems model of human development, which views children’s behavior and developmental status as being influenced by multiple levels of the environment, some direct and proximal to the child, such as the child’s actual experiences in an education or care setting, and some indirect and distal, such as national policy. The study findings focus on the influence of young children’s experiences in community preprimary education and care settings on their language and cognitive development at age 7, controlling for family and cultural influences. Both proximal and distal variables are examined within that context.

The target population consisted of children in selected community settings who were approximately 41/2 years old. Data for the longitudinal project were collected in early childhood care and education settings in ten countries: Finland, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain, Thailand, and the United States. Each country’s research team chose to sample settings that were used by large numbers of families in the community or important for public policy reasons. With expert assistance, each country’s research team developed a sampling plan, using probability proportional to size to select settings and systematic sampling procedures to select four children within each classroom. The age-4 sample included over 5,000 children in more than 1,800 settings in 15 countries. Ten of the initial fifteen countries followed the children to age 7 to collect language and cognitive outcome measures. The median retention rate across countries was 86 percent, ranging from 41 percent to 99 percent. The number of children included in the longitudinal analyses varied from 1,300 to 1,897, depending on the particular analysis.

Working with High/Scope researchers, measures used in the study were developed collaboratively by members of the international team. At age 4, data were collected with three observation systems and three questionnaire/interviews. Children’s cognitive and language developmental status was measured at age 4 and age 7. The observation systems collected time-sampled information about how teachers schedule and manage children’s time, what children actually do with their time, and the behaviors teachers use and the nature of their involvement with children.

Interviews were conducted to collect family background information and gather information regarding teachers’ and parents’ expectations about what is important for preschool-aged children to learn. A questionnaire that focused on the structural characteristics of the settings was administered to teachers and caregivers.

The children were followed until age 7, an age across countries when they had all entered primary school. At that time, cognitive and language measures developed by an international team were administered to assess developmental status.

Based on the structure of the data, with individual children nested within settings and settings nested within countries, a hierarchical linear modeling approach was used for the analysis. Accurate estimation of impacts for variables at different levels was especially important for this study because effects at two levels— settings and countries—were often confounded with one another. Although the relationship between setting variables and children’s later development was of primary interest, any such findings would have been hard to interpret if country effects had not been accurately estimated and adjusted for. A 3-level approach enabled decomposition of variation of child outcomes into three parts—variation among children within settings, among settings within countries, and among countries. As a result, relationships between care setting variables and children’s outcome scores are free of substantial influence from country-level effects.

To date, the project has produced a series of reports on parent beliefs, characteristics of early childhood settings, and how these characteristics relate to children’s cognitive and language performance at ages 4 and 7. Among its findings are the following:

• The world over, mothers spend 8 to 12 hours a day with their 4-year-olds, while fathers spend only 6 to 54 minutes.

• In almost all types of group settings around the world, adults interacting with children use adult-centered teaching strategies more often than child-centered strategies.

• Children’s language performance at age 7 improves as the predominant types of children’s activities that teachers propose are free (which teachers let children choose) rather than personal/social (personal care, group social activities, discipline). From greatest to least contribution, activity types were as follows: free, physical/expressive, preacademic, and personal/social.

• Children’s language performance at age 7 improves as teachers’ years of full-time schooling increase.

• Children’s cognitive performance at age 7 improves as they spend less time in whole group activities (the teacher proposes the same activity for all the children in the class—songs, games, listening to a story, working on a craft, or a preacademic activity).

• Children’s language performance at age 7 improves as the number and variety of equipment and materials available to children in preschool settings increase.

These findings show that teaching practices matter; how teachers set up their classrooms and the activities they propose for children make a difference. Across diverse countries, child-initiated activities and teachers’ education appear to contribute to children’s later language performance; and minimization of whole group activities and a greater number and variety of materials in preschool settings appear to contribute to their later cognitive performance. Although more research is necessary to establish a pattern of cause and effect and explore the learning mechanisms involved, those in the early childhood field can use these findings to examine local policies and practices and consider if changes are advisable.

Further Readings: Olmsted, Patricia P., and Jeanne Montie, eds. (2001). Early childhood settings in 15 countries. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press; Olmsted, Patricia P., and David P. Weikart, eds. (1989). How nations serve young children: Profiles of child care and education in 14 countries. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press; Olmsted, Patricia P., and Weikart, David P., eds. (1994). Families speak: Early childhood care and education in 11 countries. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press; Weikart, David P., ed. (1999). What should young children learn? Teacher and parent views in 15 countries. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

Lawrence J. Schweinhart