In 1995, the Administración Nacional de Educación Pública (ANEP), or the National Administration of Public Education, began an ambitious expansion of the public preschool system in Uruguay, making public preschool practically universal by 1999. The aim of this expansion was, in part, to reduce high-grade repetition and dropout rates for students in both primary and secondary school, especially for students from low-income families.
Between 1995 and 2012, public pre-primary program participation in Uruguay rose by around 60 percent, from 50,000 students to almost 80,000 students.
However, despite the growth in public preschool participation throughout Uruguay, questions remain about whether or not these programs are truly achieving their goals. In 2008, a study examining how any type of preschool participation in Uruguay affects educational attainment found that students who attended preschool completed significantly more years of schooling by the age of 15. And although this study establishes an important relationship between preschool participation and future years of schooling, it doesn’t explain what happens to students after the age of 15. The question remains as to whether there are longer-term effects of public preschool participation in Uruguay that last into adulthood. My thesis attempts to answer this question by examining whether or not public preschool participation in Uruguay can increase secondary school completion rates and university enrollment.
Research in the U.S. suggests that there is a significant relationship between public preschool participation and higher levels of educational attainment for programs targeted towards at-risk populations. Evaluations of small, intensive preschool programs focusing on minority children like the Perry Preschool program and the Abecedarian Project have not only found early gains in math and reading scores over non-participants, but that participants were also more likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Additionally, evaluations of the much larger-scale Head Start program have found that, on average, participants have increased years of schooling compared to non-participants, even though early gains in math and reading tend to fade out during elementary school. Evaluations of the universal preschool programs in Oklahoma and Georgia have found that participating students initially perform better in letter-word identification, spelling, counting, and problem-solving over the control group, although fadeout in cognitive skills generally occurs by around the 3rd grade. However, while the potential fadeout of universal preschool’s effects on cognitive skills is a concern, large-scale preschool programs in the U.S. have demonstrated there can still be long-term effects even when this cognitive fadeout occurs. Non-cognitive skills gained as a result preschool, such as social, emotional, and behavioral skills, are particularly important in achieving these outcomes.
Research on adult outcomes is also important because there is multi-national evidence that additional years of schooling can lead to higher levels of income once individuals enter the labor market. Additionally, numerous studies have found that there is a “sheepskin effect” for degree completion, in which earning high school and post-secondary degrees give people a wage premium in the labor market greater than someone who completed the same number of years of schooling or college credits, but failed to earn a degree. One study found that this premium is around 11 percent for high school degree holders and 31 percent for bachelor degree holders in the U.S. However, even without earning a post-secondary degree, each additional year’s worth of college credits earned in the U.S. has been estimated to increase hourly wages in the labor market by around five percent. These findings demonstrate the effect that graduating from secondary school or enrolling in a university can have on labor market outcomes, and why it is of interest to examine whether public preschool participation in Uruguay has the potential to affect these measures of educational attainment.
Using the Uruguayan Continuous Household Survey (ECH) data, a matched comparison approach was employed called propensity score matching (PSM). This method helps balance the observed characteristics, such as race and gender, between the students who attended public preschool, and those who did not participate in any preschool program. These characteristics include individual characteristics like gender, ethnicity, and birth year, as well as household characteristics like head of household education, urban/rural residence, and poverty status. PSM uses these characteristics to predict the probability that a student would have attended public preschool (i.e. a propensity score), and then matches public preschool participants with non-participants who have similar propensity scores. Finally, the average outcomes of secondary school completion and university enrollment can be compared between the two groups.
The analysis found that, compared to no preschool, public preschool participation in Uruguay is significantly associated with higher levels of university enrollment, but not secondary school completion. When the sample is broken down into subgroups based on gender and socioeconomic status, public preschool participation is associated with increased secondary school completion rates for males, females, and individuals living below the poverty line, though not for those living above the poverty line. In contrast, private preschool participation, compared to no preschool, is significantly associated with higher levels of both secondary school completion and university enrollment for the overall sample.Estimates of Relationship between Preschool Participation and Secondary School Completion (Click to Expand)
Given that there is no overall association between public preschool participation and secondary school completion in Uruguay, it is reasonable to ask why there is a positive association between public preschool participation and university enrollment. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the skills gained in public preschool programs primarily benefit students who already have the motivation to complete secondary school, and that these skills are able to increase the motivation of these students to enroll in higher education programs. This could potentially explain why there would not be a sizable difference in secondary school completion between public preschool participants and non-participants, but there would be for university enrollment.Estimates of Relationship between Preschool Participation and University Enrollment (Click to Expand)
These results may have wide implications for countries throughout the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region. The public preschool programs in Uruguay share many characteristics to those that have launched over the past two decades in other LAC countries. The Dominican Republic, Peru, Paraguay, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina also have large public preschool programs targeted especially towards families with low-income children. The results in this thesis suggest that similar programs may be able to increase educational attainment for these low-income children, but possibly not for more advantaged children. For countries that currently have—or are considering implementing public preschool programs similar to those in Uruguay—to raise educational attainment for all students, they should closely examine both the quality of education, and how teacher attention is distributed among students. By maximizing secondary school completion and university enrollment rates for as many students as possible, these countries should be able to increase the earnings of individuals, which will likely result in increased tax revenues and hastened economic development.
Image Source: http://www.fsfbelley.net/en/beginning-school-year-schools-uruguay-argentina/#