copy the linklink copied!Executive Summary

The earliest years of a child’s life are a period of great opportunity and great vulnerability. Children are learning faster than at any other time in their lives, building the foundations for their future cognitive and social-emotional development. Without a strong early foundation, it is harder for children to build advanced cognitive and social-emotional skills. Education systems wishing to achieve a substantive change in student outcomes are well advised to increase their focus on the quality, responsiveness and effectiveness of their early years policies.

The International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) puts a spotlight on how children are faring at five years of age. The study directly measures key indicators of their learning, as well as collecting a broad range of developmental and contextual information from their parents and teachers. The study focuses on those aspects of early development and learning that are predictive of children’s later education outcomes and wider well-being. These are: emergent literacy and emergent numeracy, self regulation, and social-emotional skills.

Three OECD countries participated in this study: England (United Kingdom), Estonia and the United States. They each participated to enhance the body of international evidence available to policy makers, education leaders, practitioners, and parents on children’s early learning outcomes. The study provides each country with information on their children’s earliest years in order to inform decision making.

The results from IELS are presented in four reports: an international report and an in-depth report on each of the three participating countries. This volume focuses on the findings for the United States.

copy the linklink copied!Main findings

Five-year-olds in the United States are doing less well than those in England and Estonia across a range of cognitive, self-regulation and social-emotional domains

Children in the United States had lower emergent literacy and emergent numeracy scores, on average, than those in England and Estonia. They were also less able to respond appropriately when rules changed (i.e. they had lower mental flexibility scores) and had poorer working memory than their counterparts in England and Estonia.

The picture was more mixed regarding social-emotional skills. Five-year-olds in the United States were reported as having similar levels of trust to their peers in England and Estonia and were equally able to identify how they felt and to exaplin why they felt that way in a given scenario. They displayed less prosocial behaviour than on average in IELS, but also less disruptive behaviour, as rated by their educators. Finally, children in the United States were less accurate than children in Estonia at identifying the feelings of characters in stories presented in the IELS assessments, but were about as accurate as children in England.

ECEC attendance was associated with higher emergent literacy and emergent numeracy scores, regardless of children’s socio-economic background

Children in the United States who had ever attended early childhood education and care (ECEC) had higher mean emergent literacy and emergent numeracy scores at age five than those who had never attended, and the differences in mean scores remained significant after accounting for socio-economic status (SES). According to parents in the United States, 80% of the five-year-olds had attended an ECEC setting, and 51% had attended by the age of three. These participation rates were lower than in England and Estonia, where there was close to universal participation by age five. There was a significant association between ECEC attendance and SES in the United States, with over 90% of five-year-olds in the top SES quartile having attended before the age of five, compared to 73% in the bottom quartile.

Girls do better than boys in many of the cognitive, self-regulation, and social-emotional skills assessed by the study

In the United States, five-year-old girls had a significantly higher average emergent literacy score than boys. This gender gap was similar in size and direction to the gender differences for emergent literacy found in Estonia and England. In contrast, there was no significant gender difference in emergent numeracy scores in the United States (or in either of the other countries). Gender differences in favour of boys have been found in large-scale mathematics assessments with older students in the United States, however, suggesting that these gender gaps may emerge as children progress through school.

Girls in the United States had significantly higher mean scores than boys on all measures of social-emotional skills included in the study. Girls displayed greater ability to identify others’ emotions and take others’ perspectives, skills that were directly assessed in IELS. Girls were also more trusting and showed more prosocial and less disruptive behaviour than boys, as reported by their educators. The gender gaps in social-emotional learning were somewhat smaller in the United States than in either England or Estonia.

In the United States, as in England and Estonia, boys were significantly more likely than girls to be reported as having experienced learning difficulties or social, emotional or behavioural difficulties. Boys from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly likely to have experienced these challenges, and represent a group that may be at risk for later educational and social difficulties. Particular attention may need to be paid to the literacy development and the social and emotional learning of boys in order to bring their early outcomes in line with those of girls or to prevent further widening of gaps.

By the age of five, wide gaps in skills are already evident between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, but not among racial and ethnic groups

Socio-economic status was positively correlated with IELS scores in the United States. The mean emergent numeracy score for five-year-olds in the top SES quartile in the United States, for example, was 110 points (more than a standard deviation) higher than for those in the bottom quartile. The relationships between SES and scores in many of the domains were stronger in the United States than in either Estonia or England.

There were no significant differences in the United States between the mean scores of White, Black and Asian children or those of two or more races in any of the learning domains assessed in IELS. After accounting for SES and home language, the mean emergent literacy, emergent numeracy and mental flexibility scores of Hispanic children did not differ significantly from those of White children. This finding contrasts with assessments of older children in the United States which have consistently shown gaps in student achievement in reading and mathematics between White and Black children and between White and Hispanic children, although the size of these gaps has been closing over time. That IELS did not find significant racial or ethnic gaps in learning outcomes soon after school entry suggests that these gaps emerge as children progress through school.

Many parental practices are positively associated with children’s early learning scores, suggesting practical ways in which parents can support their children’s learning

IELS identified a number of parental practices that are positively associated with children’s early learning. For example, regardless of socio-economic background, five-year-olds in the United States who were read to on at least five days each week by their parents had a significantly higher mean emergent literacy score than other children, and were also better at identifying the emotions of the characters in the IELS vignettes. Similarly, children whose parents sang songs or nursery rhymes to them most frequently had a higher mean emergent literacy score than other children. For some activities, moderate rather than daily frequency was associated with higher IELS scores. For example, attending special activities (such as sport, dance or scouts) on one or two days a week was associated with higher literacy scores than never attending such activities and doing so most days.

Parental involvement at school was also associated with higher early learning scores in the United States: children whose parents were rated as moderately or strongly involved in activities at school by their teachers had higher mean scores across a range of assessment domains than those whose parents were less involved, regardless of socio-economic background. Access to greater numbers of children’s books at home was also associated with higher scores across a range of cognitive and social-emotional subdomains.

In the United States, moderate use of digital devices is associated with higher emergent literacy scores

In the United States, five-year-olds who never or hardly ever used digital devices such as a laptop computer, tablet or smartphone had a mean emergent literacy score that was significantly lower than the mean scores of children who used them monthly or weekly, but not significantly different from the mean of children who used them daily. In the United States, almost half of five-year-olds (49%) used such devices every day, a larger percentage than in either England or Estonia (both 39%).

Children’s skills in each of the learning domains assessed in IELS were interrelated in the United States

Children’s emergent literacy and emergent numeracy scores were positively and strongly correlated with one another, and each was moderately to strongly positively correlated with scores in self-regulation (working memory and mental flexibility) and with children’s abilities in identifying others’ emotions. The correlations were weaker between each of emergent literacy and emergent numeracy and the other social-emotional skills assessed in the study. The correlations between either emergent literacy or emergent numeracy and teacher ratings of disruptive behaviour were negligible.


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