In collaboration with Sophie Gardiner

The forthcoming IDB publication “Panorama sobre desarrollo infantil en America Latina y el Caribe: Un estudio comparativo” (Overview of Early Childhood Development Services in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Comparative Study), by María Caridad Araujo, Florencia López-Boo and Juan Manuel Puyana, and two other recent IDB studies on early childhood education in Brazil by Paulo Bastos and Julian Cristia and by Aimee Verdisco and Marcelo Perez Alfaro, highlight the completely decentralized provision of ECD services in the country, and the heterogeneous quality of programs. In the last 10 years, Brazil has made impressive progress incorporating early childhood education into its education policies, according to Verdisco and Alfaro. The Política Nacional de Educação Infantil formally integrated early childhood education into the country’s education system in 2005. In 2006, the federal funding for infant, primary and secondary education was unified, and channeled through the municipalities. In 2009, compulsory education was extended to include those ages 4 to 17.

The forthcoming IDB study analyzed programs in Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza, and Sobral: a large, a medium, and a small city. The programs in Fortaleza and Sobral have universal coverage, while the program in Rio prioritizes families geographically, uses a lottery and also takes into account their level of vulnerability. Throughout Brazil, these centers require that their staff have high levels of teacher qualification, which are similar to the requirements in Argentina. Sessions for parents on childhood development are held occasionally at the programs in Rio and in Fortaleza, and yearly sessions for parents on teaching methods are organized by UNICEF for families in the program in Sobral.

The child to educator ratio is one element of heterogeneity across these programs. The programs in Rio and Fortaleza have a ratio of around 4 children per educator for those younger than two, while the program in Sobral has a lower average child to educator ratio (around 3), but  it is 2.5 for children younger than 1 and it is 3.75 for children between 1 and 2 years old. However, the program in Sobral has the highest ratio of all three programs for children ages 2 to 4 (8.75), and the second highest for children ages 4 to6 (10). Overall, the program in Sobral has a lower  child to educator ratio than the programs in the other two cities. All the programs provide food and try to meet a minimum daily caloric intake. However, they each monitor growth and nutrition in different ways. In Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza, nutrition is monitored at least once a semester, while in Sobral, the evaluation does not occur regularly.

These specific examples of cross-city variation in important aspects of the services provided are consistent with the findings of Verdisco and Alfaro’s recent IDB study on the quality of early childhood education in Brazil. The authors of this study found that among 150 centers in six cities in Brazil, the average quality of crèches (for infants and toddlers age 0-3) and preschools (for ages 4-5) was “basic;” scoring just above 3 out of 10 on the Infant and Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS) and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS). Most importantly, the quality of the centers differed significantly between cities. Conditions in Fortaleza and Teresina were classified as “inadequate” in both crèches and preschools, while the cities of Florianopolis and Rio de Janeiro scored at the higher end of “basic.” Across the board, the centers scored particularly low in “activities,” meaning that there were very few opportunities for students to explore and engage in language-rich activities. The study also documented the importance of high-quality services for this age group: students who attended low quality preschools scored a level lower on the Provinha test, a literacy test administered in second grade, than those who attended high quality preschools.

The other recent IDB study, by Bastos and Cristia, also demonstrates the heterogeneity of privately provided early childhood programs specifically in the city of São Paulo. The quality of the programs, measured by teachers’ schooling, group size and equipment, varies greatly between neighborhoods and is directly correlated with local household income. The authors suggest that policy makers implement regulations and provide more publicly funded centers in low-income areas.

The heterogeneity highlighted in all three studies indicates that children in Brazil are not receiving equal opportunities early in life. As Bastos and Cristia suggest, more public funds need to be invested in quality ECD services in order to level the playing field for the youngest children and close the gap between the richest and the poorest.

Sophie Gardiner is a senior at Middlebury College studying International Politics and Economics. She was a summer intern at IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division.

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