School is no longer a place for personal growth and enlightenment.
It has become a battlefield where helicopter parents prepare their toothless sweethearts to beat everyone else even before reaching the starting point of the race called life.
In the 1960s, the starting line was in primary one. But now, not in Hong Kong but also in the United States, it begins in preschool.
Worse still, playgroup – where eager parents enroll their children before kindergarten – contradictory to what its name suggests – really has nothing to do with playing.
By the end of 2014, the US government had already spent around US$1 billion to subsidize preschool education.
Last year, US President Barack Obama pushed it further by unveiling his “Preschool for All” scheme, allocating US$1.2 billion in 10 years for its implementation.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has included the scheme in her platform.
But is free-of-charge preschool education really something good and devoid of flaws?
Most of the developed countries provide compulsory primary and secondary education, but this has come under growing criticism.
The main complaint is that schools are operating like factories, achieving standardization by using exams and assessments as a means for “quality control”.
As a result, students, especially those with potential, soon lose motivation to learn.
The key to the success of preschool education is whether it is genuinely nurturing toddlers or it serves only to enforce schooling.
It is quite misleading, in fact, to say that education happens only in school.
A school might be able to equip students with knowledge, skills and training for physical strength and discipline.
However, whether schoolchildren get along well with others or stay eager to learn as an independent learner, is another matter.
Half a century ago, most families had the fathers going to work and the mothers looking after the kids at home.
Children who grew up among relatives and neighbors, though it may seem all they do is play all day, turn out to be independent and capable of taking care of themselves.
They are, as social beings, even good at reading other people’s thoughts and feelings from a young age. These skills are simply not offered by schools or instilled by teachers.
Preschool education began in the 19th century. However, it started to weigh in only before the First World War, when women also had to go out for work, leaving them with less time to educate their children.
The growth in the number of working parents also fueled demand for early admission to school for toddlers.
Children were supposed to learn most of the basics at nursery school.
Early childhood educator Erika Christakis at the Yale Child Study Center points out that the real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.
The curriculum should be ideas-based, aimed at encouraging learners’ enthusiasm and curiosity.
If you visit a preschool classroom in Hong Kong, or even in the US, you will most probably notice what Christakis calls a print-rich environment.
Every surface is festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, etc., reducing the learning environment to naming and labeling.
In some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergarten pupils weren’t allowed to advance to first grade, according to a study in Mississippi.
It’s an impossible phenomenon strictly unheard of 10 or 20 years ago.
Christakis cited the results of a major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system.
It was learned that children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten, compared with those who did not attend preschool.
By the time they were in first grade, their attitudes toward school were deteriorating, and by second grade, they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language and math skills.
Children were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning, Christakis said.
When would parents and authorities ever stop pushing kids and let them play as children are supposed to do?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 12.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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