In recent years, more and more children worldwide have access to pre-primary education.  As access expands, it’s important to keep our attention focused on quality – the elements of the learning environment that determine children’s experiences in early childhood education. Quality can be viewed from a child’s viewpoint – what she gets to do during the day; how she feels about her teachers and friends; and whether she has opportunities to stretch and grow while receiving help when she needs it.

In many countries, the focus of monitoring is still placed on structural elements like the safety of the school building and the number of teachers and children per classroom. While these factors are undoubtedly important, the true impact of ECE is based on the quality of interactions and learning that each child experiences. A strong body of research, mostly from high-income countries, has outlined key elements of quality that are associated with children’s learning and development. These elements include how teachers interact with children; how much access children have to materials; the safety of the environment; and centrally, the ability of children to lead their own exploration and play. Previous work has highlighted the importance of teachers’ skills in engaging children in learning through rich discussions, play-based activities and building relationships that promote social and emotional development. Yet because few ECE quality scales have been tested across both high- and low-income country contexts, we lack a deep research base on ECE quality in many settings.

The MELE or Measuring Early Learning Environments scale, was designed to promote measurement of quality in low- and middle-income countries by creating a feasible, adaptable scale of ECE quality. We recently worked with government partners and funders to test the MELE scale in one sub-Saharan African country. While the overall purpose of the project was to provide the government with policy-relevant information on ECE quality, we used the data from this project to answer some key questions about quality measurement. First, we were interested in knowing how well the MELE scale functioned – whether it showed adequate psychometric properties such as scale consistency. Second, we were interested in knowing whether the constructs in MELE, which were articulated as part of a global consortium, were perceived as relevant and applicable in this context. Finally, we were curious to know whether the MELE scores were associated with children’s development and teacher characteristics.

Our results, which will soon be published in a special edition of Early Childhood Research Quarterly focused on quality measurement, indicated that the MELE scale had three factors: teacher/child interactions; health/safety; and materials/activities. We also found that stakeholders generally agreed with the constructs that were included in MELE, although some changes to the scales were made – for example, adjusting for the health/safety hazards that are unique to their settings. Finally, we found that while all three factors were associated with higher levels of teacher education, only materials/activities showed associations with child development and learning.

In sum, while we only found one association between MELE factors and child development and learning, our results demonstrated that a quality scale can be adapted for use in a low-income context with adequate psychometric properties. It’s also important to note that many studies in high-income countries have also shown small associations between quality and child development and learning, so our results were in many ways consistent with other studies.

Perhaps most critically, our study highlights the need for in-depth and context-specific research on ECE quality and child development across contexts. We need more insight into the aspects of quality that are especially important for children in low-income countries. To understand quality more deeply, we also need to hear from teachers, parents and other stakeholders on what they value in ECE, so we can continue to design and implement measures that align with their goals and priorities.

Research plays an important role in highlighting the strengths and challenges in ECE. By investing in research partnerships across countries, we can expand our insight into child development and work more effectively to create great learning environments for all children.