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


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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 fourth column, Rozelle explains what can be done to help increase rural kids' educational readiness. 


Inequality 2030:

Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair

Caixin Column 4: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years

(Part 2)


Following the recent policy changes aimed at expanding preschool offerings in rural China, REAP ran an experiment to see just what was becoming of the government’s effort. The experiment was simple. We chose 150 children to be part of our study. They were living in about 100 villages in a poor rural Henan county. Before any intervention, all children were given Dr. Ou’s educational readiness test as a way to gauge the starting point for the children’s baseline level of development. After this, half of the children were randomly selected to receive full scholarships, allowing their parents to send them to the preschool of their choice. The scholarship made preschool absolutely free. The other half of the parents received no financial support—their children only went to preschool if the family decided to pay the tuition and other fees themselves. The parents in the control group were not told that other parents in their county were given scholarships and the random assignment to scholarship or control group was done in a way that the average starting educational readiness scores were identical.

So what was the result? First, the good news. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scholarships encouraged a lot more participation in preschool. By the time their children were five years old, 35 percent more parents in the scholarship group were sending their kids to preschool. This experiment thus makes clear that high preschool tuition does indeed present a considerable barrier to preschool enrollment. This is good news in the sense that this is an easily resolvable problem—if the government commits to making preschool tuition-free (like elementary and junior high school) we can expect many more parents to send their kids to preschool and reap the benefits. This is a tangible step that the government can (and should) take as soon as possible.

But of course, there was also bad news. Do you remember what the international literature said? Going to preschool is one of the keys to early childhood development. However, in our experiment we found that attending preschool in rural areas had no effect on kids’ educational readiness. More specifically, we found that despite the increased levels of preschool attendance, the average level of educational readiness did not rise at all. As noted above, the students were randomly assigned to the scholarship and control groups so that their scores on Dr. Ou’s educational readiness tests before our intervention were identical. Unfortunately, the test scores of the children in the scholarship and control groups were still identical a few years later when the children were getting ready to start elementary school—even though 35 percent more of the children in the scholarship group had spent that time in preschool. In other words, going to preschool did not improve the kids’ educational readiness in any measurable way. 

So what happened? Why didn’t attending preschool help these kids? Of course, the answer is relatively simple, though hugely disheartening. Quite simply, the quality of the preschool programs in rural areas remained low. The quality of these programs was so low, in fact, that attending preschool had no effect whatsoever on educational readiness. 

Visits to rural China’s preschools make it clear what the problems are. They are mostly the same as we saw before: high teacher-to-student ratios, poorly trained teachers, and non-existent curriculum. In fact, in addition to the schools in which students were left to sit alone in dark rooms, in the most active and prestigious preschools we visited we found that during the preschool hours—a time when children should be learning to explore and play and find their interests—the main activity was memorizing characters and being drilled in arithmetic. It seems that the huge recent investment in preschools was in many areas just an ill-founded attempt to move the first grade’s rote memorization curriculum ahead to the preschool years, rather than a sincere effort to build the sort of engaging preschool curriculum that has been found to be so powerful in recent international research.

This suggests that the direction for policy change is not as simple as we might have hoped. Even if more children gain access to preschool, as long as the quality of the programs remains so low, attending preschool will have no impact on educational outcomes. In fact, this sort of increased spending on preschool might be thought to be a waste of resources: why spend all the time and money building up a system and encouraging children to go to preschool when the children develop equally well (or equally poorly) when they are just allowed to hang out in the village and play with their friends and families?

So we ask again: what needs to be done?

China does need to continue to invest in preschools. The recent extension of preschool offerings was a critical first step, but these efforts must be followed by a true commitment to extending the opportunity to all rural children. And that can only happen if preschool is free: as long as high tuition is a barrier to attending preschool, inequality will continue to increase and the poorest rural children, the ones that most need a leg up on their education, will be unable to get it. We actually believe that preschool should be mandatory—at least in poor areas. In the same way that all children are going to elementary school these days, all kids in the 21st century should be going to preschool.

But even more important is that the quality of preschools needs to improve. This effort must start with improving facilities and equipment, but we believe it is even more important to train young, dynamic teachers that are schooled in new and exciting, flexible and age-appropriate curricula. Preschool is not the time to begin math and science and Chinese literature. It is the time to learn to play and socialize, to be curious and learn to learn.

We wish we could say we had a magical, one-size-fits all curriculum in mind. In fact, in no country is there such a thing. As I learned in raising my own very different sons, different children need different learning environments. They need teachers that can help identify their strengths and weaknesses. They need teachers that can coach them through creative and exciting programs. And they need preschool programs that will truly prepare them to engage when it comes time to start the real work in elementary school.

There are some innovative programs being tested today, mostly being promoted by foundations, NGOs, and private entrepreneurs-cum-educators. These efforts, however, represent only a very small sliver of what is going on today in preschool programming. Most new preschool programing is being taken on by local governments. Unfortunately, we have seen little evidence that local governments are interested in these sorts of innovative solutions. This must stop. The time has come for the extension of creative, original and constructive preschool programming to all of China’s toddlers. Only then can we can make sure that rural students are made ready to hit the starting gate at the same pace as their urban peers.

To read the column in Chinese, 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)