The Promise of Preschool in Africa : A Randomized Impact Evaluation of Early Childhood Development in Rural Mozambique
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We find that primary school enrollment rates increase significantly in treatment communities. Children who attended preschool are 24% more likely to be enrolled in primary school at endline compared to the control group, and are more likely to enroll at the appropriate age. Furthermore, beneficiary children spend an average of 7.2 additional hours per week on schooling and homework related activities and reduce time spent working on the family farm and attending community meetings. Perhaps most importantly, participation in the preschool program results in significant improvements along a number of child development outcomes. Results show consistent improvements in cognitive and problem-solving abilities, improvements in fine-motor skills and better socio-emotional and behavioral outcomes. As such, children are better prepared for school and outperform their peers on these dimensions. On the other hand, some of our principal measures of communication and language development are not significantly different between the treatment and control groups, and continue to be alarmingly low for both groups. While children’s health and nutrition were peripheral components of the preschool intervention, the evaluation data revealed striking delays in physical growth amongst preschool aged children, with over 40% of children being stunted at baseline. Given that a child’s growth potential is largely determined by age 3 (the youngest age in our sample at baseline), and early delays in physical growth are difficult to reverse (Martorell et al., 1994), it is not surprising that we find no differences in rates of stunting and wasting between children in the treatment and control groups by 2010. The impacts of the program on children’s reported health are mixed. On one hand, we observe hints of reductions in diarrhea and skin problems which may be linked to the program’s emphasis on hand washing and self-care (though results are not statistically significant). On the other hand, children who attend preschool are more likely to report being sick, and in particular to have had a cough, which may simply reflect the increased exposure to colds from being in close proximity to other children. In addition to direct impacts of the program on children who attend preschool, we also consider the effects on other household members, in particular caregivers and older siblings. We find a striking result that children 10 to 15 years old at endline, a group that was too old to have benefitted directly from the preschool program, are 6% more likely to have gone to school when a younger child in the household has attended preschool. Furthermore, caregivers of preschoolers are 26% more likely to have worked in the 30 days prior to the interview. These results suggest that the center based ECD model, where children are cared for out of the home, may produce added benefits by freeing up time and resources for older children and adults in the household to engage in other productive activities, whether that is school or work. Finally, we show that through its parenting component, the program produces changes in care-giving knowledge and practices. Caregivers in the treatment group are less likely to report that physical punishment is appropriate, and report increases in the practice of daily routines and self sufficiency activities with their young children. Caregivers also report a significant increase in satisfaction with their child’s preparation for future school. Taken together, these results lead us to believe that preschool programs are a promising policy option for improving the school readiness and later success of poor and disadvantaged children in rural Africa. In addition to the positive effects on children, the low-cost center based model studied here has added benefits for older children and parents of preschool aged children. This evaluation also reveals that by age 3, many children arrive at pre-school with severe delays in physical growth (as evidenced by the high rates of stunting) and signs of strong lacunas in vocabulary development. We propose that in addition to preschool, children in poor rural settings may benefit from complementary health, nutrition and early stimulation interventions starting much earlier in life. Finally, it is important to emphasize upfront that this report presents the results of a small and well managed program implemented in three Mozambican districts, and the analysis is focused on results achieved by the approximately 55% of children who actually enrolled in preschool. Whether or not similar results can be replicated in other parts of Africa with large scale programs or with close to universal enrollment remains an empirical question and should be tested in future research.
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