Early childhood education and the role of psychological skills—Evidence from the Philippines

Most of us understand that investments in early childhood education matter. Quality education early in life not only leads to higher educational attainment, and typically increased learning, but also enables other positive outcomes—such as increased wages. Despite this broad understanding, important caveats exist.

First, the effectiveness of early childhood education critically depends on the behavioral response of parents, especially when parents are unwilling to send young children to school. Second, much less is known about the most effective and efficient ways to design early childhood education programs aimed at improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged children.

In our paper, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Evidence from the Philippines,” presented online in the #DIYCSAE conference, we examine the effectiveness of two distinct types of kindergarten programs in rural Philippine villages. The first program is the Jumpstart kindergarten program implemented by International Care Ministries (ICM), a faith-based NGO operating in the Philippines. The second program is the standard government-sponsored kindergarten program that was mandated across the country in the Kindergarten Education Act passed in 2011. Importantly, the Jumpstart program uses the same curriculum as the government program and also includes a set of “enrichments” that ICM staff thought to be important additions. Examining two distinct programs provides a couple nice benefits for our study.

  1. By exploiting both (i) the timing of the roll-out of these programs and (ii) the age of children within households, we can plausibly identify credible effect estimates of attending both kindergarten programs. In this sense, we use an identification strategy that is similar to that used in Duflo (2001) and Wydick et al. (2013).
  2. We can make a distinction of the relevant counterfactual for children when estimating program impact. This is important because children from different backgrounds may experience different benefits from enrollment in early childhood education, not only because they have different characteristics, but also because they would have different early childhood education experiences in the absence of these programs.

What do we do in the paper?

We estimate the impact of attending each of these kindergarten programs on primary school outcomes, relative to the “no kindergarten” counterfactual. In the Philippines, every student takes a big standardized test before third grade. Based on the performance on this test, the 30 or so “best” students are placed in one class section, the next group of kids in another class, and so on. Although we do not have the ability to observe test score data (an admitted weakness of the study), we do have self-reported information from mothers. Our primary outcome variables include the mother’s identification of which of her children academically performed best in third grade and elementary school, whether the child was placed in the top “section” in third grade, and current enrollment status.

Across each of these outcomes, kids who attended Jumpstart kindergarten perform better than kids who did not go to kindergarten. With the exception of the “placed in top third grade section” outcome, kids who attended jumpstart also perform better than kids who attended the government kindergarten who do no better than kids who did not go to kindergarten. Although it seems that attending the government kindergarten helps kids land in the top third grade section, this outcome variable is quite blunt and does not distinguish performance within the top section.

What explains the relative success of the Jumpstart kindergarten program?

We investigate possible mechanisms, by first looking at a variety of intermediary outcomes and second by performing formal mediation analysis. We primarily look at psychological skills—such as grit, peer affiliation, self control, and self identity—as potential mediating variables.

We find that kids who attend Jumpstart have higher levels of grit, self control, and self identity relative to kids who did not attend kindergarten. Additionally, kids who attend the government kindergarten experience gains in self control and peer affiliation.

We can also recategorize the questionnaire items to construct an alternative set of psychological indices corresponding more closely to the “Big 5” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. We find results that relate closely to the previous results. We find that kids who attend Jumpstart have higher levels of openness and conscientiousness relative to kids who did not attend kindergarten. Additionally, kids who attend the government kindergarten experience gains in agreeableness.

Although the effects on Jumpstart attendance are not statistically different than the effects on government kindergarten enrollment, we see these results as suggestive that the Jumpstart kindergarten program did lead to a gain in psychological skills.

To investigate the role of psychological skills in mediating our primary results, we perform a formal mediation analysis. Although any approach to mediation analysis is tricky, we feel our setting is relatively well suited for this approach. Our results show that although psychological skills do not fully explain the primary results, changes in self control or conscientiousness likely explain some of the effects.

To conclude: the results in this paper support the conclusions of previous work in the United States finding that early childhood education can help develop the psychological skills helpful for success later in life. Although more research is necessary to test the external validity of these results, it is noteworthy that the production of specific psychological skills may be universally beneficial.

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