On July 16, 2013, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings hosted a private event to discuss early childhood development in China, with perspectives offered from the United States and other large countries. Across the various regions of the world, no single country has mastered a system for early childhood development (ECD) programs. However, given the differences seen from one country to another, there are a number of opportunities to share ideas, challenges, strategies and successes in the hopes of bettering ECD programs for young children around the world.
Since 2009, China’s preschool enrollment rate has jumped from 50.9 percent to 64.5 percent. As of 2012, China’s preschool system boasted 181,600 centers serving approximately 36 million children aged 0 to 6. With two-thirds of the country’s children in preschool centers, the Ministry of Education in China has set goals to reach universal access for one year of preschool before primary school, almost universal access for two years before primary, and if necessary, a third year to the families who can afford it. Although the details of resource evaluation and government funding are still being worked out, the Ministry hopes to achieve these goals by the year 2020.
The event on ECD programs engaged practitioners, experts and thought leaders from both the United States and China in a conversation about the current state of preschool education in China and featured relevant case studies from other large countries, such as the United States and Brazil. The importance of ECD in providing life-long benefits for individual children and society at large was a foundational agreement among the event attendees. Some questions that were asked and subsequently discussed in detail included:
- How should governments promote equal opportunity with limited resources?
- How do countries create a preschool curriculum that is effective and has clear objectives?
- How are teacher qualifications and performance monitored and rewarded?
The remainder of the discussion was spent grappling with the issues of quality, targeting and content. One scholar highlighted the topic of “quality” and the importance of acknowledging that child outcomes need to be included in any definition of quality. Some experts noted that the quality of ECD providers’ performance could be assessed based on children’s developmental outcomes at school entry, which could, in turn, be used to inform parental decisions and agency funding. Others emphasized that the only way to have an impact in ECD programs is to expand access while simultaneously ensuring quality.
After comparing relevant country case studies, attendees agreed that, while universality is a laudable goal, targeting preschool subsidies at poor children is a sound investment when public resources are limited. Furthermore, preschool curricula should focus on non-cognitive learning (i.e. self-discipline, health education, planning, attention, emotional maturity and interpersonal skills) and growth, in addition to academic learning. This pairing of non-cognitive and cognitive skills is critical to the development of children aged 0 to 6 and requires the attention and investment of parents and families, who can reinforce learning and positively impact educational outcomes in their homes. While this event touched on several important questions related to preschool and ECD, continued discussion of lessons learned and further exploration of country partnerships will be extremely beneficial to the future success of ECD programs around the world.