Educational Challenge - Early Childhood Education

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Early childhood is a crucial time period for the development of children's mental functions. This development, including the emergence of language, motor skills, psychosocial, cognitive, and learning abilities, is now known to be greatly influenced by exogenous factors, including the educational environment to which a child is exposed during the first 6 to 8 years of life (Bowman, Donovan and Burns, 2001).

It has been shown that Early Childhood Care and Education (ECE or ECCE) can be a major input into a child's formal education. A number of studies link ECE to increases in school readiness for primary school, and it has been shown that school readiness is an important predictor of early school achievement (Forget-Dubois et al 2007). One review of 36 studies of ECE effectiveness in small-scale demonstration and large-scale public programs—each study comparing participants with a control group of non-participants—finds "overwhelming evidence that ECCE can produce sizable improvements in school success." (Barnett 1995, pg. 40)

Further, early gains in school readiness due to early childhood education have been shown to have enormous positive economic and social impacts lasting well into adulthood, from higher educational attainment and less chance of involvement in criminal activity, to higher status employment and higher earnings (Schweinhart 2007; Sparling, Ramey and Ramey 2007).

James Heckman, Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago, reviewed the ECE literature and found that the long-term, economic return on investment in high-quality ECE programs is more than 8 to 1 (Heckman 2000).  Summarizing the few longitudinal studies and many short-term studies of ECE interventions, Heckman argues the important lesson to take away from successful early childhood interventions is that social skills and motivation are a young child's most easily life-altered attributes, even more so than IQ.  Further, social skills and motivation have large impacts on school performance. In his view, a student with strong social skills and motivation tends to acquire a higher level of education. Then, with all three attributes (social skills, motivation and education), the individual becomes highly valuable in the work place.

Heckman concludes, "We cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school age—a time when it may be too late to intervene. Learning is a dynamic process and is most effective when it begins at a young age and continues through to adulthood." (Heckman 2000, pg. 50)

Our new project on early childhood nutrition.

Our new project on better parenting for toddlers.

The Components of Good Early Childhood Education

While parental and family care forms an important component of ECE development, so does education. A good quality ECE program should be a multi-dimensional educational program with a focus on the holistic development of children in the early stages of their childhood. One of ECE's goals is to enable children to be "more ready" for primary school education. A good ECE program should have the following characteristics:

  • it should be built around a good learning environment with an effective, well-thought out curriculum;
  • it should begin at an appropriate starting age;
  • it should be provided in a physical space that is safe and one that has certain specialized facilities;
  • it should be given by professional care givers, attentive to the individualized needs and progress of the child,
  • and, if possible, it should include the involvement of parents.

"While no single curriculum or pedagogical approach can be identified as best, children who attend well-planned, high-quality ECE programs in which the curriculum aims are specified and integrated across domains tend to learn more and are better prepared to master the complex demands of formal schooling." (Bowman, Donovan and Burns 2001, p. 7-8)

Early Childhood Education in China

While there is international consensus that ECE will place children at a better starting point for primary education and give them a better chance for achievements later in life, in China the importance of ECE has not caught society's full attention. Lack of awareness and uncertainty over the influence of ECE on the school readiness of their children lead many parents to place ECE far from the top of their educational priority lists. Policymakers have also relegated ECE to a much lower position. While national legislation and municipal policy in some urban areas (e.g. Shanghai) have been passed in recent years to try to regulate teacher training and qualifications and to provide guidelines for high quality ECE classroom teaching (Li 2006), public policy has not been backed with public funding. The empirical evidence on the extent to which these guidelines have been put into practice remains to be seen.

The ECE situation is far worse in rural China. There is a gaping disparity in ECE between urban and rural areas. In urban areas approximately 95% of young children attend a preschool prior to starting primary school (Educational Statistics Yearbook of China). In rural areas, however, participation in ECE is only 50% (Sohu News 2007). In poor areas of rural China, the participation rates are much, much lower, around 20 to 25 percent. A 2008 REAP canvas survey in 3 northwestern and central provinces (Shaanxi; Ningxia and Henan) found that in poor, rural areas the number of young children in preschool was only 20 percent or less.

Institutional Setting

Why is there such a gap in ECE care in China? One reason may be due to the differences in the institutional setting. Preschools in China are private. The government provides very limited support for preschools and ECE programs. There is no large-scale government compensation programs, like Head Start in the United States, to help families and their children gain access to preschool education. Therefore, in middle- and large-sized cities, where income levels are much higher than in rural areas, most families self-finance their children's preschool education.

In addition, there is a lower availability of preschools in rural areas. Even if parents pull together enough money and decide to send their children to preschools, preschools are often not close enough to where they live to make it feasible. In many cases, ECE facilities may be absent altogether.

Problems with ECE in China: Curriculum

An effective ECE curriculum should be an integration of care and involvement from family and preschool caregivers together with educational stimulation. Interpersonal relationships between young children and their teachers and parents are crucial for building children's social and intellectual competence. Yet, while urban preschools in China can be quite costly, they often provide children with relatively low quality education. A primary goal of preschools in China is to provide children with physical safety and care while their parents are away working (Wang 2006). Much less attention is given to the critical educational components needed for early childhood development.

Although there is no national curriculum, a great number of preschool curriculums in China share an emphasis on more studying and less structured or guided playtime. Wu (1996, pg 13)  writes, "A common method of teaching in Chinese preschool is learning by rote or recitation in unison in class." This is despite research indicating that preschool children learn through playing and other hands-on experience (Rubin, Fein and Vandenberg 1983).

Historically, the emphasis in China's preschool education  has been on children's regimentation and obedience training (Ho 1986) . Wu argues (1996, pg. 14) that "the concept of governing, monitoring, interfering, and controlling (guan) summarizes teachers' consistent actions to maintain order and discipline in the classroom… 'regimentation' is perhaps the best word to describe the classroom."  This emphasis in the ECE curriculum is less effective in increasing school readiness, or worse, can generate negative effects on a child's early development. While the quality of the ECE curriculum among the private preschools of China's urban areas may be improving since Wu's assessment (Li 2006), there is little evidence to suggest that changes have been made in preschools and kindergartens in China's poor, rural areas.

Problems with ECE in China: Teachers

Another problem is the low expertise of Chinese preschool teachers and ECE caregivers. While urban preschools are staffed by teachers who have typically completed high school or college (Bai, Luo and Yin 2004), teachers are much less educated in rural areas. Most of the kindergarten teachers in rural areas hold degrees in child-education from vocational middle schools and vocational high schools. A considerable number of those who hold college degrees are non-child education majors (Yao and Xie 2004). Teachers have very limited, if any, formal training related to child development, and new training opportunities are extremely limited (Yao and Xie 2004).


While empirical evidence is lacking in rural areas, as it is in urban areas, observations of rural preschools outline a stark picture. They suggest that problems of low quality ECE—from financial and geographic barriers; to poor curriculum that de-emphasizes guided play; delivered in low quality early childhood centers lacking stimulating materials; led by teachers with low levels of ECE training—remain large and are pervasive in China.  In rural areas, and especially in poor, rural areas, the minority of students who actually attend preschool and day care centers receive a much lower quality early childhood education than their urban peers. The majority receive no early childhood education at all.

REAP Takes Action

The trajectory towards higher educational attainment and greater lifetime success is first set in early childhood. Recognizing the critical need for improved early childhood development for children in rural areas of China, REAP's Early Childhood Education objectives are to:

  • Document the nature of ECE in rural areas of China, describing the level of educational readiness; children's access to preschool; the quality of preschool facilities and teaching resources and the overall approach to preschool curriculum
  • Understand what factors encourage or discourage parents from sending their children to preschool
  • Understand how different ECE curriculum, investments, and other programs affect the level of school readiness among young children from poor, rural areas in China

In our Preschool Vouchers project, we evaluated the effects of a one-year conditional cash transfer given to parents to cover the cost of preschool tuition. Although this voucher effectively raised preschool attendance by more than one third, it did not have a measurable impact on children's elementary school readiness. We believe that poor quality of preschool education in rural China is behind this result.

Full results of the Preschool Vouchers project are detailed here:
The impact of vouchers on preschool attendance and elementary school readiness: A randomized controlled trial in rural China

We are now addressing the parental and family care aspect of ECE through our Perfecting Parenting project. As part of this project, we are retraining officials from China's Health and Family Planning Commission as "parenting trainers," who visit rural children's homes every week to teach their caregivers how to talk to, sing to, and play with their children. Observations suggest that this project is having a big impact on these children's cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional development. 

Read stories from our Perfecting Parenting project here, and stay tuned for results.

Read more about the educational challenges children in rural China face here.


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