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Global movement for assessments of early childhood development and what’s missing in SDG4.2 by Kenji Kitamura

This NORRAG Highlights is published by Kenji Kitamura, master student in International Educational Development program at Teachers College, Columbia University. In this post, Kenji Kitamura assesses the monitoring systems for SDGs indicators as part of global governance. The assessment often lacks an effective indicator for home environment and quality assessment, which are essential to achieving Target 4.2 in SDGs. Hence, a global dialogue is needed to discuss an effective strategy to monitor progress towards a global early childhood development goal and ultimately support development of all young children.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) has been given increasing attention over the past decades, both globally and in national and local policies. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.2 articulates the ECD target that “all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.” While much progress has been made for monitoring systems for SDGs as part of global governance, the quality aspect is often missing or defined in terms that make measurement complicated. In addition, the tension between global monitoring of progress and the local data needed to inform national priorities has not yet been resolved. Thus, critical investigation is needed to unpack the processes and intentions behind which ECD assessments are developed and disseminated.

Assessment of Child Development Outcomes
Target 4.2 has two global indicators, aimed at capturing the means (early childhood education participation) and the ends (child development). As for the ends, the indicator 4.2.1 is “proportion of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track.” “Currently there is no globally-accepted definition of ‘developmentally on track’, and consequently, there are no further definitions for the indicator so far” (UNESCO, 2018 p. 25). There do exist a large number of assessment tools to measure various domains of child development. The World Bank has published a tool kit that introduces 147 assessments of child development, which are used for various purposes and populations.

There are three levels of child development assessments: screeners, programmatic assessment, and population assessments. Screeners are used to identify signs of developmental delay while programmatic assessments are used to measure the impacts of ECD programs. These two levels of assessments tend to provide precise and culturally-specific information. On the other hand, population assessments are used to monitor overall child development status at scale. Although information of this level is relatively imprecise, it enables comparison of children in different countries by finding the small subset of developmental domains that are common across cultures.

Population assessment is a necessary indicator of ‘developmentally on track’ for the sake of international monitoring for SDG 4.2. Primarily because of its wider country coverage, the UNICEF Early Child Development Index from the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) is currently the main tool for reporting on indicator 4.2.1. This indicator defines ‘on track’ as the percentage of children who are developmentally on track in at least three of the following domains: literacy-numeracy, physical, social-emotional, and learning.

What’s missing in SDG 4.2
The indicator 4.2.2 of participation in early childhood education (ECE) was incorporated as a means of achieving a goal of child development. However, access to ECE alone does not ensure that children are developmentally on track. Based on research (Fernald et al, 2017), two more indicators need to be taken into account as essential factors that underlie child development: home environment and quality of ECE.

In fact, home environment is one of the thematic indicators under Target 4.2. Thematic indicators are additional levels of cross-nationally comparable indicators, with a more in-depth view of sectoral priorities than available in the global indicators. The indicator 4.2.3 aims to capture “percentage of children under 5 years of age experiencing positive and stimulating home learning environments.” In practice, however, this indicator has no agreed-upon assessment tools. Considering its importance, an agreed indicator to assess home environment needs to be urgently established. A potential path is to build on the existing international assessments, such as indicators of adults’ support for learning, which is part of MICS.

Furthermore, what is completely missing in SDG 4.2 is an indicator for quality of ECE. It is a widely held consensus that quality of ECE matters significantly for child development. “Poor-quality services not only fail to contribute to the child’s development, but can even be harmful” (Araujo et al., 2017) Therefore, the quality of ECE is also central to Target 4.2, since without a strong emphasis on quality, investments in ECE will not lead to improvement of child development outcomes.

In recent years, international efforts to assess the quality of ECD interventions have become more active. Two have received widespread attention, both for their potential and the challenges they present.

Emerging international assessments of ECE quality
The first emerging assessment activity is the OECD’s International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS), under development since 2012. IELS aims to gather information on influential environmental factors at home and in ECE programs that affect child development using a framework that provides cross-nationally comparable information for peer-learning and sharing of best practices across countries. Furthermore, integrating IELS into PISA will provide longitudinal information. A field trial was carried out in England, Estonia and the United States in 2017 and preparation for a main study has been initiated.

IELS has received criticism from scholars. First of all, during the development process, respected scholars in the field were not consulted, and their input was unwelcome. Therefore, evidence from much research has been ignored, leading to following problems: a narrow scope and disrespect of local tradition and culture. IELS includes only structural factors, such as frequency and program type. Although data on structural factors are easier to obtain and compare across countries, such data are significantly less likely to provide valid assessments of the actual quality of ECE. Process quality, which capture the child’s direct experiences in ECE, particularly interaction with teachers, has to be assessed as a core quality element in a manner that reflects local contexts. As IELS ignores local traditions and contexts, the study may lead to inaccurate comparisons and increased standardization. Furthermore, using its result with PISA may even lead national ECE policies to be affected largely by test-based high-stakes accountability, which renders the importance of ECE very narrow and can have unintended consequences on the ground. As with other international large-scale assessments, IELS could draw attention and resources away from national and local initiatives to create in-depth understandings of complex ECD systems, to develop relevant monitoring system and to support ECE quality improvement.

The second emerging assessment activity is the Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO). MELQO was developed by collaborative work between Brookings, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank as well as numerous individuals and organizations, in 2014. MELQO was built upon a number of existing assessment instruments to create a common set of items that can be used cross-nationally. It consists of two modules: a measure of child development; and a measure of early learning environments.

As an assessment of quality of early learning environments, Measure of Early Learning Environments (MELE) was developed from a literature review to identify universally relevant aspects of learning environments that underlie child outcomes. It captures holistic aspects of ECE including both structural factors and process quality. It is designed for adaptation to different contexts through discussions with stakeholders and alignment with national standards by providing a small set of constructs that may be useful across contexts along with guidelines for local adaptation of specific items. Therefore, the results of this tool should serve the dual purposes of generating globally-comparable data and yielding culturally-valid measures for national efforts of quality improvement of ECE.

MELQO has received growing support. For instance, the G20 Initiative for ECD, which was launched in the 2018 G20 summit, declared support to MELQO as a way to strengthen systems to monitor ECD interventions globally. Still, it also has challenges. While it aims to generate globally-comparable data, in practice “the approach to national adaptation and use of the MELQO modules has varied by country” (UNESCO, 2017, p19). Therefore, the data collected is not cross-nationally comparable for use as a global indicator. However, this fact does not necessarily mean that MELQO is useless in the context of SDGs. As the indicators have been decided upon to promote tracking at the global level, countries need to develop plans for monitoring their progress towards SDG targets. In this process, MELQO can be potentially used to develop a national indicator in a manner that is not only contextually relevant, but also adhere to the global target.

In summary, although there are many activities, including the two described above, to develop assessments of ECE quality, the tension between quickly-measurable cross-national progress and contextually-specific progress towards the SDG has not been resolved. Given that OECD is a powerful donor agency, the approach of IELS may lead to increasing standardization of ECE in recipient countries. MELQO, on the contrary, takes more democratic and participatory process in which national stakeholders lead adaptation processes to reflect local cultures and needs. The current G20 summit in Buenos Aires might have an important meaning since it has raised awareness of the importance of ECD and its assessment among countries, more than half of which are also OECD member countries. Much more global dialogue on this issue needs to take place to discuss about effective strategy to monitor progress towards a global ECD goal and ultimately support development of all young children.

Relevant links
A toolkit for measuring early childhood development in low and middle-income countries.

Democratic accountability and contextualized systemic evaluation: A comment on the OECD initiative to launch an International Early Learning Study (IELS)

Baby PISA is Just Around the Corner. So Why is No One Talking about It?

Framing the Future: PISA for Development and the Future of Education Governance by Euan Auld, Jeremy Rappleye, Paul Morris

GERM Policies in Early Childhood: Infecting our Youngest Citizens and Threatening the Right to Education by Helge Wasmuth and Elena Nitecki

G20 Initiative for Early Childhood Development: Building human capital to break the cycle of poverty and inequality by G20 Argentina 2018

Araujo, M.C., Fiszbein, A., & Diaz, M.M. (2017). The Quality of Early Childhood

Development Services in Latin America: An Agenda for Change. Washington, DC: Inter-American Dialogue and Inter-American Development Bank.

Fernald, L. C., Prado, E., Kariger, P., & Raikes, A. (2017). A toolkit for measuring early

childhood development in low and middle-income countries. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

UNESCO. (2017). Overview: MELQO: Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes.

Paris, France.

UNESCO. (2018). Quick Guide to Education Indicators for SDG 4. Quebec, Canada:

UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Kenji Kitamura is a master student in International Educational Development program at Teachers College, Columbia University. The author can be reached at    

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