In a recent paper, Steven Barnett makes reference to a substantial body of research that establishes early childhood education (ECE) can improve the learning and development of young children; the effects varying in size and persistence by type of programme. ‘Well-designed’ preschool education programs, he says, produce long-term improvements in school success, including higher achievement test scores, lower rates of grade repetition and special education, and higher educational attainment. Some preschool programs are also associated with reduced delinquency and crime in childhood and adulthood. Significantly, the strongest evidence suggests that economically disadvantaged children reap long-term benefits from preschool.
The ramifications of this for economic development are enormous, which is why the Millennium Development Goal #2 aims at ‘Education for All’ by 2015. The problem is that an estimated 18 million extra teachers will be required to meet this goal, and to achieve that kind of scale within this time frame requires a paradigm shift in thinking as far as the process of educating prospective teachers is concerned.
In India alone, an extra two million teachers will need to be recruited. Given existing public policy settings, the chances of this happening are slim. There is also the problem of getting existing teachers to turn up. It is estimated that in any given day, teacher absenteeism is of the order of 25%.
Radical solutions are called for, and public-private partnerships may be one option. A model based on that used by Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Sustainable Social Development Institute is worth contemplating, which brings together private and public organisations to serve low-income communities, through its Virtual University and 1400+ Community Learning Centres.
Is it possible, for example, that a young Indian woman, having matriculated from junior high school, could pursue a foundation degree in ECE teacher education and learn while she is on the job? This is far from the ideal, but it is infinitely preferable to the alternative. With a satellite dish, a solar panel and an interactive whiteboard, it is technically possible to ‘beam in’ an international standard ECE curriculum (appropriately modified to be culturally inclusive), for the ‘apprentice teacher’ to deliver to children in an isolated rural community. The same technology would enable her to network with others in her situation, studying online to work towards a formal teacher qualification.