China Goes Big

American politicians reveal their nervousness about China whenever they bash the country’s investments around the world or mention Beijing’s smog. China’s efforts to expand preschool may make them even more anxious. The Ministry of Education aims for every child to have access to what the Chinese call “kindergarten”—three years of pre-primary school starting at age three—by 2020. 

China’s efforts were the subject of a November event at the Brookings Institution that featured former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong. The two women discussed their conviction that childhood investments are critical to a country’s long-term success. “Despite different national conditions,” Liu said, “China and the United States share the vision and goal of giving priority to children and promoting social fairness, and there is broad space for boosting our cooperation in this field.”

Despite the encouraging talk, neither country is looking especially good right now. In a recent 45-country survey published in 2012 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the U.S. ranked 24th (tied with the United Arab Emirates), while China ranked 42nd, in preschool quality, availability, and affordability.

But China’s new preschool expansion could quickly move the country up. Unfettered by the messy democracy that has paralyzed the U.S. Congress, China isn’t wasting a moment. The 2020 plan, approved in fall 2012, calls for each of the country’s more than 2,800 counties to create a proposal for funding and implementing three years of preschool. By the end of 2013, every county had submitted a document on how they would achieve this goal.

These plans, says Liang Xiaoyan, senior education specialist at the World Bank, don’t offer free preschool. Instead they rely on a combination of parent fees, private donations, expansion of existing public programs, and public subsidies. The plans also don’t propose integrating preschool into China’s public-school system. But the actions by local officials have catalyzed a rise in enrollment in programs for three- to five-year-olds, according to Liu, with enrollment climbing to 64.5 percent of all children, nearly 14 percentage points higher than three years ago.

One reason for the follow-through, Liang says, is that regional leaders know that Communist Party officials will hold them accountable. They may also receive assistance from the newly formed Center for Child Development, a national organization designed to work with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health to build effective programs in needy rural areas.

The most significant sign of China’s commitment appears in a series of documents produced by the Ministry of Education that lay out expectations for what Chinese children should know and be able to do by the time they are four, five, and six years old. Called “early learning guidelines,” they are designed to prompt a re-envisioning of how teachers should be trained and what parents should expect of their children’s physical and emotional growth, language development, and understanding of the arts and sciences. The ministry approved the guidelines in fall 2012 after six years of study, with researchers testing more than 3,600 children from cities and rural areas. The government also brought in American experts, including Sharon Lynn Kagan of Columbia University, a professor of early-childhood and family policy, who is the United States’ leading authority on early-childhood standards.

It’s not as if China never had any policies on preschool until now. In 2001, the government approved a set of guidelines, but according to Guo Liping, a professor of early childhood at East Normal China University, they were not specific. Because they contained few examples of how to incorporate playful learning into preschool activities, some child-development experts worried that the old standards encouraged teachers to become too didactic.

Consider the teaching of math in China. Parents in urban areas are often characterized as being especially concerned about whether their children are learning mathematical concepts. One might assume, then, that China will expect little kids to become math robots. But the new guidelines are not about drill and practice. They don’t even emphasize counting to 10 or 20. “Mathematical learning” is in the science section, where the goal is to have children “begin to sense the usefulness and fun of everyday mathematics.” For four-year-olds, the expectation is that children will “under guidance realize and discover that many objects in life can be described with numbers” and that children will show an interest in exploring the implications of numbers and measurements.

Early-learning guidelines exist in the United States, too. In fact, over the past several years, all 50 states have developed documents that set out expectations for children’s learning. Kagan has assisted with the creation of many, and they too emphasize exploration and discovery. But in the U.S., the guidelines do not necessarily lead to improvements in teaching or better communication with parents about how to help their children develop. On rare occasions when parents do hear about efforts to apply them to pre-K, the response is frequently unwelcoming. Some parents have written about a fear of “standardizing” childhood by laying out expectations for specific ages (though given the emphasis on self-discovery and social development that is present in many of the guidelines, one wonders if those protesting have read their states’ documents).

In China, the guidelines’ authors clearly want to avoid being overly prescriptive. Words like “expression” and “creation,” for example, are subheads of the section on arts, a sign of how much China wants to dispel the notion that it is raising automatons. “To avoid to suppress young children’s imagination and creativity,” states the English version of the guidelines, “adults should not use their own standards to judge the work of young children, or even train them using a ‘one size fits all’ approach only for the sake of ‘perfect’ results.” Other sections lay out expectations for children to develop a love of learning and discovery. “We emphasize the importance of children to explore,” Guo says. This shift, he says, stems in part from what the Chinese have learned from U.S. experts.

“For the first time, the Education Ministry is recognizing that the curriculum needs to be more appropriate for younger children,” Liang says. She sees the guidelines as a sign that the ministry realizes that “you can’t teach three- and four-year-olds the same way you teach six- and seven-year-olds—that it should not be so much drilling of information as is common in those grades.”

Many thanks to Jenny Lu Mallamo for her help with Mandarin translation.