As the press for advancing young children’s well-being surges throughout the world, gnawing questions remain about how best to do this. In some countries, significant new funding investments are being made (OECD, 2020a); in others, new direct services including child care, family leave, home visiting, and heath efforts are being launched (OECD, 2020b; UNICEF, 2019); and in others still, much attention is being accorded to enhancing the quality, capacity, and compensation of the workforce (OECD, 2021).
Which of these efforts yields the greatest impact? Which of these efforts is the most preferable and predictive of children’s long-term outcomes? And what does the literature tell us about these questions, particularly when we look at very different countries, with each contoured by their unique cultural, social, economic, and political contexts? To address these questions, an international study was undertaken over a three year period, and yielded important findings that can guide our efforts.
This study, published as the Early Advantage  (Kagan, 2018; Landsberg & Tucker, 2019), looked at six high-performing countries, with “high-performing” predicated on the quality of their early childhood services (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2012) and their PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores (OECD, 2012). The study examined the nature of each country’s early childhood direct services, governance, policies, and financing in an effort to determine the hallmarks of high-quality early childhood systems. While not representative of LMIC, the selected countries were diverse in their policy contexts – Nordic (Finland), Asian (Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Republic of Korea), and Anglo (England and Australia) – and remarkably varied in their approaches to enhancing children’s well-being. While no country’s services and approaches are totally reflective of, or fully importable to, any other country, very instructive lessons emerged.
Lesson 1: CONTEXT CONTOURS: All Countries’ Policies and Practices Reflected Their Context
Not surprisingly, variations in the commitment and approach to services for young children reflected unique country contexts. No one would mistake Finland’s impressive fiscal commitment, replete with its heavy public funding and provision, with that of either Asian or Anglo countries, which rely far more on the engagement of the private sector in service delivery. Moreover, no one would mistake public commitments to the monitoring of services and overall accountability efforts in the Anglo and Asian study countries with those of Finland, where a strong commitment to universalism, trust, and professionalism prevails. The lesson is not that one approach is necessarily better, nor that we should rank order the approaches (e.g., good, better, best). Rather, these findings suggest that the policies and practices enacted by countries are highly framed by their often immutable contexts. As such, any policy effort to expand and/or improve services for young children must be developed, tailored, and implemented with a precise understanding of the social, political, economic, and historical context of the country. Simply put, what is possible in Country X may not be effective in Country Y, yet the lessons drawn and the strategies adapted from diverse contexts can significantly expand both our thinking and actions about what we can do and how we best approach policy enhancements in our own contexts.
Lesson 2: MULTIPLE BESTS: All Countries Provided Diverse Direct Services to Young Children and Their Families
Despite their differing policy contexts, all countries provided an array of services to young children and their families. At the pre- and perinatal period, all countries had paid family leave, subsidized health care beginning at the onset of pregnancy, and home visiting services. For infants and toddlers, most had subsidies for low-income and at-risk families to access service provision and parenting supports. All countries had services for preschoolers in the year preceding entry to formal school and most offered professional development, incentivization, and compensation schemes for those working with young children. While often overlooked, all countries implemented transition efforts that support children and families as they move into formal school. The notable lesson is that not all countries have all the above services, but all countries do acknowledge the early years as birth through, at least, entry to formal school and provide for young children across that age spectrum. That is, all countries’ early childhood policies have multiple age foci, with few prioritizing services to any single age group. Moreover, all offer a range of diverse services to children across the early years age spectrum.
Lesson 3: STRUCTURES AND SYSTEMS: Tilting the Focus Beyond Direct Services
Notable and often overlooked, each of the countries understands that to achieve service quality, equity, sustainability, and efficiency, resources and policies must also focus on the infrastructure that supports the services and programs offered directly to children. This means that countries pay attention to how they govern and fund services for young children; they strive to provide coherence in program regulations and personnel certification across various funding streams; they pay attention to how they prepare, induct, evaluate and compensate personnel; they focus on systematic efforts to advance diverse leaders and to engage diverse populations in decision-making about programs; they all have frameworks that guide policy and programs; and they all have some form of data collection, with the data being used to advance program and service quality. Finally, all countries understand the importance of research, with most funding governmental research entities to foster the development of new knowledge about young children. Again, these countries focus on different elements of this infrastructure, but they all understand that funding direct services alone will not produce the early childhood quality that is needed by young children: a focus on the infrastructure is a necessary prerequisite of a quality early childhood system .
Lesson 4: SYNERGY: Planning Linkages
Not axiomatic and often not readily apparent, the countries all plan their investments to achieve synergy among them. They plan for improvements in governance to affect professional development or for how information collected from monitoring data may impact early childhood financing. More specifically, the frameworks mentioned above are not only used pedagogically with young children, but the framework development process includes diverse individuals who contribute to their construction. Framework content is multi-purposed: it guides the development of teacher preparation programs, the metrics by which teachers and children are evaluated, and the ways in which transitions to formal school are handled. It also drives economic investments, via the fiscal incentives implemented to requite or simulate framework adoption. In short, an effective early childhood system demands creating thoughtful and intentional linkages among infrastructural elements – documents are used to guide multiple facets of the infrastructure, and policies implemented in one area are evaluated for their impact on other systemic elements. Thus, intentional planning yields synergies that build and unite coherent systems.
Taken together, these four lessons provide meaningful guidance as countless countries around the globe consider their many options for advancing children’s well-being. Delineated with detailed examples in the Early Advantage study and its two volumes, diverse and rich efforts to achieve quality for young children exist. Not only are they available for us to learn from, but they provide platforms for innovation as we all contour paths, appropriate to our unique contexts, for young children’s policy.
 This work is made possible through a grant by the Center on International Education Benchmarking® at the National Center on Education and the Economy.
 Many thanks to the co-principal investigators Kathy Sylva (England), Kristiina Kumpulainen (Finland), Nirmala Rao (Hong Kong), Mugyeong Moon (Republic of Korea), Rebecca Bull (Singapore), and, our dear colleague, the late Collette Taylor (Australia).
Economic Intelligence Unit. (2012). Starting well: Benchmarking early education across the world. Retrieved from http://graphics.eiu.com/upload/eb/lienstartingwell.pdf
Kagan, S. L. (2018). The early advantage 1—early childhood systems that lead by example: A comparative focus on international early childhood education. New York: NY, Teachers College Press.
Landsberg, E., & Tucker, M. S. (2019). The Early Advantage: International Insights from Innovative Early Childhood Systems. Building Systems that Work for Young Children (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2012). PISA consequences. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2020a). Early childhood education: Equity, quality and transitions. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/education/school/early-childhood-education-equity-quality-transitions-G20.pdf
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2020b). Education at a Glance 2020: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing, Paris. Retrieved from <https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/69096873-en>
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2021). Starting strong VI: Supporting meaningful interactions in early childhood education and care. Retrieved from <https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/starting-strong-vi_f47a06ae-en>
UNICEF. (2019). Paid parental leave and family-friendly policies: An evidence brief. Retrieved from < https://www.unicef.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/UNICEF-Parental-Leave-Family-Friendly-Policies-2019.pdf>
Sharon Lynn Kagan is the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy and Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Professor Adjunct at Yale University & Child Study Center. Kagan is a prolific author (300 articles and 18 books), prominent public speaker and scholar, and an active member of over 30 national boards or panels. Recipient of international and national honorary doctoral degrees, she is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a member of the National Academy of Education, and a Fulbright Scholar (Tajikistan). Recognized internationally for her expertise and accomplishments, she has advised over 90 foreign governments on their early childhood policies. Kagan is the only woman in the history of American Education to receive its three most prestigious awards: the 2004 Distinguished Service Award from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the 2005 James Bryant Conant Award for Lifetime Service to Education from the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.