Unlike most Western countries, especially those in Europe, Israel has a high fertility rate – an average of three children per woman, compared to 1.6 in the OECD countries. As a result, the younger age groups are substantially larger in Israel than the older age groups. Today, more than half a million children in Israel are under the age of three, and the population of very young children two and under is expected to grow by some 20% to 30% by the year 2040.
A new study by Prof. Yossi Shavit and research assistant Hai Vaknin at Jerusalem’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel examined the participation of young children from birth to age three in preschool educational settings during their critical developmental years and compared the children’s reading achievements when they reached fourth grade.
The research literature on the link between early childhood education and future achievement focuses primarily on children aged three to six. The new study, however, focuses on children from birth to age three –
the most important years in a child’s development.
Available data on educational frameworks for children until three years attest to their general poor quality. The participation rates in this age group in Israel are among the highest in the world, but they found that only a quarter of those in these frameworks are in settings that are under the supervision of the government like those run by women’s organizations such as WIZO, Emunah and Na’amat that take care of infants and toddlers. Most children under the age of three are in unsupervised settings with little data available about them.
The new Taub Center study is the first of its kind to compare quality indices of supervised early education settings in Israel and other countries. The unsupervised day care, provided usually in private homes by women whose training and functioning were not, until recently, supervised, suffers from the low education level of staff and the high number of children per class, as reported by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs. The government supervision that did exist for these frameworks for children under age three, wrote the authors, did not include pedagogical supervision, and there were no uniform standards for learning programs.
The researchers used data from standard exams that tested reading achievement levels in fourth grades and included questionnaires completed by both pupils and their parents about their home environment. The data include more than 3,000 children born in Israel studying at 159 schools.
The study found that, when controlling for family characteristics, the achievements of children who participated in early childhood education and care settings from birth to age three were the same as children who did not attend daycare. This is the case among Jewish and Arab children alike, and no difference was found on the basis of social status. The researchers suggest that this finding reflects the low average quality of such frameworks which until recently were, for the most part, not under government supervision.
Israeli parents now hope that comprehensive state supervision of daycare facilities for babies and toddlers will raise their educational and supervision levels, increase the number of caregivers per class and make them safer in a way that will improve reading levels when they reach age 10.