Caixin Column 3: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 1)


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REAP co-director Scott Rozelle builds on a ten-part series for Caixin Magazine titled, "Inequality 2030: Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair." In his third column, Rozelle explains why rural children are unprepared for preschool. When they do attend, rural preschools are not only hard to find but also of notably poor quality. 



Inequality 2030:

Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair 

Caixin Column 3: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years

I have two sons. Both were raised in the sunny suburbs of California. By the time the oldest was three years old, I knew he was self-motivated, goal-oriented and driven. I decided to enroll him in a Montessori preschool. In Montessori schools, children are encouraged to be independent, given a lot of freedom to choose which activities to perform, and allowed to freely proceed from one activity to another, learning and completing tasks at their own pace.

My second son was a bit different. He loved nature, exploring, and interacting with children, but he did not like competing with his peers. He was less interested in the goal-oriented focus of his older brother’s Montessori program and certainly would have been uncomfortable with the competition that was always just under the surface. So I sent son number two to a Waldorf preschool. The philosophy of Waldorf is that the best way to launch kids on a path of lifetime learning is simply to let them explore, play, and learn from nature. In these schools, children play and learn collaboratively and there is plenty of unstructured time to get out into the playground and beyond, running and shouting and playing games together.

And both my very different sons thrived in their very different preschool environments. And when it came time to enter elementary school, both were ready to learn and to thrive all over again.

Across the world, the toddlers of our friends in Beijing have equal access to a wide variety of preschools and other early childhood educational institutions. One couple we know has enrolled their children in Fun-First, an innovative preschool that lets kids learn how to play and learn from play. There are Beijing and Shanghai Montessori schools and Waldorf schools. There are Saturday classes for moms and daughters and for dads and sons that teach both parties—parents and their children—how to play and learn together. And all of these widely varied programs help these toddlers develop the basic skills they will need once it comes time to start elementary school: how to socialize with others, how to think and to learn, and how to engage in a classroom environment.

Unfortunately, kids in rural China are not so lucky. In the past, most did not go to preschool. They were strapped to Grandma’s back while she worked in the field. Older sister took care of younger brother while Dad went off to work. In most cases, these kids were simply left on their own to amuse themselves in the lanes of the village. At the very most, they went to private, for-pay daycare centers in nearby townships with poor conditions: dirty; dark; emotionless. Although preschool offerings in rural areas began to expand in the mid 2000s, preschools in rural areas remain poor quality and are often poorly attended. 

And so we have stumbled upon another gap between urban and rural China. But how much difference does preschool really make? Is there any reason to believe that rural kids are suffering from their less structured toddler-hoods?

Unfortunately, strong evidence produced by Rural Education Action Program—REAP—show that rural toddlers are lagging behind their urban counterparts when it comes to what is called “educational readiness.” What does that mean exactly? For the past several decades, Dr. Ou Mujie, formerly a child psychologist at Beijing Medical University, has developed, refined and benchmarked a test of educational readiness for children of different age groups.  The test is multidimensional, assessing each child’s cognitive ability, language skills, communication ability, independence, and fine and gross motor capacity. The test is designed to determine whether or not a child is ready for the next phase in their formal education. For four and five-year-olds, the test indicates whether or not a child is ready, as compared to the rest of their peers, to start kindergarten.

Based on this work, Dr. Ou produced a definitive distribution of educational readiness scores for four to five-year-olds. According to her work, most urban Chinese children have readiness test scores between 85 and 115, with the distribution centered around 100 points. A child is deemed “not ready” for the next phase of education if he or she scores below 70 points. Dr. Ou believes this distribution is representative of urban four to five-year-olds in urban China. Sure enough, only about three percent of urban children aged four to five years were found to be “unready” for school on this test.  

In a study done by REAP, we used Dr. Ou’s test to measure the readiness of nearly 750 rural four-year-olds from 40 townships in Shaanxi, Gansu and Henan Provinces. We produced what we believe is the first set of scores and distributions of educational readiness for children from poor rural areas in China. We show that China's rural children scored much lower on standardized tests of educational readiness than their urban counterparts. More than one half of the rural children (57 percent) in our sample were “not ready” to continue on to the next stage of formal education. In fact, fully 86 percent of rural children were less ready for the next step of education than the average urban child. In shortest and simplest terms, rural children failed their educational readiness tests in an enormous way.

From this we can understand a lot about the pervasive inequality of education in China. Educational inequality in China today is not solely due to the fact that rural compulsory schools are inferior to urban schools. The inequality is likely in no small part due to the fact that rural children are behind before they start.

Which gets us back to a more fundamental question: Why is it that rural toddlers are doing so poorly in their cognitive development? In other words: Why are rural children not ready for school?

One key set of reasons, of course, was spelled out in last month’s column. Read it if you missed it. Children in poor rural areas are cognitively underdeveloped as toddlers because they were cognitively underdeveloped as infants. Infants in poor rural areas are cognitively behind their urban peers because of the combined effects of poor nutrition and poor parenting skills.

However this is not the end of the story. We argue that another key reason that toddlers in poor rural areas are cognitively underdeveloped is that they are not going to good quality preschools. 

In recent years there has been a lot of research around the world demonstrating that preschool education produces many positive benefits. There is evidence that preschool education helps raise the academic and cognitive test scores of young children. It also reduces their chance of grade repetition during elementary school. Stunningly, these positive effects last: children who attend preschool are found to demonstrate better skills and achievements during high school and even college. It has even been shown that children that attend preschool go on to earn higher incomes and commit fewer crimes after they grow up. Given these documented benefits, many educators in developed countries advocate for the universal provision of preschool to all children.

Importantly for China, these results have also been found to be valid in developing countries. Though it may seem they are doing little more than playing, children that attend preschool do in fact come away from the experience with tangible benefits that support them in the rest of their academic lives and beyond. In response to these findings, educators in developing countries across the world have begun promoting preschool education as a necessary foundation and first step for the entire educational system. 

So might the observed inequality in preschool attendance be having an impact on students’ educational readiness? It certainly looks that way, with troubling ramifications for Inequality 2030.

In 2008, REAP conducted a survey across rural areas of Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces to find out exactly what rural children were getting in the way of preschool education. Unfortunately, the state of preschool offerings across much of rural China remains discouraging. Our survey found that few families in rural China enrolled their young children in formal childcare or early childhood education (ECE) programs. The study showed that there were practically no facilities available in rural villages for children under three years of age. This was the case in all of our study’s locations. Even for slightly older children attendance was troublingly low. Only 44% of rural children aged four to six years in our sample counties were attending preschool (15%) or kindergarten (29%) in 2008. When examining the poorest counties, attendance in preschool and kindergarten was even lower. 

So why is it that so few children from poor rural areas are going to preschool? According to the REAP survey, a lack of access to ECE services is the main problem: only 11% of villages were found to have their own local preschool services. Almost no villages in designated poor areas had them.

However, lack of services is not the only challenge. We have also found that what few preschools can be found in poor areas generally provide programs that are notably low in quality. The teacher-to-student ratios are high. The facilities are poor. The teachers are poorly trained. Other essential services—in particular health and nutrition—are almost always absent. Perhaps most disheartening of all, there are few efforts to promote innovative curricula. We have been into many preschools that look much more like minimalistic day care centers: children are left to play on their own in musty, sterile environments without any guidance. But unlike my second son, exploring nature and learning freely in his Waldorf preschool, these children have only a dirty dark room in an abandoned shop or government building for a playground.

Of course, if such services were free and provided by the government, one could understand the poor quality. What do you expect of a free program with little incentive to produce high quality classes that attract customers? However, these schools are not government-provided and are anything but free. While primary schools across the country are now tuition-free, preschools and kindergartens are not. In most rural areas and in almost all poor areas, preschools are private—and expensive. Almost all the expenses of running ECE institutions are met by tuition and fees. Our survey found that ECE tuition and fees can be so high that many parents—especially those in poor rural areas—choose not to send their children to preschool and kindergarten because of the expense.

So what’s to be done? As budding literature is testifying to the importance of preschool education, rural Chinese children are being left to their own devices, and left to a less promising future. To the government’s credit, in recent years there has been an effort to expand preschool offerings. Chinese educators are finally getting on the preschool bandwagon. Facilities are being built. Vocational education programs are producing preschool teachers that are in high demand. The schools are still charging considerable tuition, but our impression is that attendance is in fact rising as access is being facilitated. Better late than never.

Or is it? Of course, the real question is whether the new commitment to preschool is really producing children that are more educationally ready.  Unfortunately, there is reason to be skeptical.

To read the column in Chinese, click here.

> To read Column 4: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 2), click here

About this series:

REAP co-directors Scott Rozelle and Linxiu Zhang are writing a ten-part series for Caixin Magazine titled, "Inequality 2030: Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair." See below for more columns in this series:

> Column 1: Why We Need to Worry About Inequality

> Column 2: China's Inequality Starts During the First 1,000 Days

> Column 3: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 1)

> Column 4: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 2) 

> Column 5: How to Cure China's Largest Epidemic

Column 6: A Tale of Two Travesties

>Columns 7 & 8: China's Widest Divide

> Column 9: China's Most Vulnerable Children

> Column 10: Why Drop Out?

> Column 11: The Problem with Vocational Education

> Column 12: Reforming China's Vocational Schools (in Chinese)