Commentary: Why investing in early childhood education cannot be the primary solution to inequality
Deep adjustments to move education away from getting kids to be able to perform narrow skills early, from persistent practices of sorting and hierarchising children, and from unequal rewards for people with varied strengths are needed, says Teo You Yenn.
SINGAPORE: Since the publication of This is What Inequality Looks Like in January, I have seen intensified interest in poverty and inequality in Singapore.
Readers seem especially interested in my discussion of education and meritocracy. Many are disturbed that the education system is not the great equaliser we wish it to be.
Our national leaders too have mentioned the importance of education as a social leveler and a way out of poverty. Much has been said about increased investment in early childhood education and ensuring that kids from low-income households are adequately prepared for primary school.
I think parents would welcome greater support for them. As a sociologist, however, I have concerns.
Pursued on its own, without significant recalibration of other key principles currently embedded in the system, a focus on early childhood education risks intensifying the “education arms race.” It may bring forward and intensify competition while ultimately doing little to alter unequal opportunities and outcomes.
TIME IS THE GIFT WORTH GIVING
Several issues bear deeper consideration.
First, the system currently rewards precocity of a particular sort. Over the years, our schools are requiring children to read and write at ever younger ages.
This advantages kids from higher-income households and disadvantages kids from lower-income households because higher-income parents have more resources to prepare their children in these areas before formal schooling begins.
It is tempting to think that the fix is to enable kids from lower-income households to also read and write earlier.
We need to step back to consider if this will really allow our schools to nurture the potential of all students. Differences in how well children do certain tasks at a certain age are not an accurate predictor of future abilities. There are natural variations in development that have no significant consequences over the long term.
A child who walks at ten months old, for example, will not be a superior walker to one who walks at thirteen months; it would be ridiculous to force a child to walk before they are ready.
Indeed, in places like Finland and Germany, school systems are not focused on narrow modes of reading and writing at early ages, and this is not detrimental to their kids’ long-term educational achievements.
When kids cannot perform the narrow set of tasks that are recognised and rewarded, they become demoralised early on in their schooling journeys. This significantly impedes learning and growth in the longer term.
In the early years, time for kids to grow and develop would better reflect the realities of childhood development than trying to compel all kids to perform a narrow set of tasks at an increasingly early age.
This unrealistic pressure to accelerate academic performance also affects teachers. Effective teaching, like genuine learning, takes time.
Time pressure pushes teachers to rely on parents — untrained and clueless about developments in pedagogy — to do their children’s homework with or for them. This promotes class inequalities and represents a waste of our societal investments in teachers.
For example, to help my Primary 4 child with Mathematics, my husband consulted a YouTube instructional video because his problem-solving method, learnt in school decades ago, was no longer acceptable at school.
While parents often complain about shifting techniques, as an educator, I believe that new and better techniques should be welcomed. But parents cannot deliver them. If resources have been spent to train teachers in new techniques, let teachers teach. And to do so, they will need time.
EXAMINATIONS: THE TAIL THAT WAGS THE DOG
I once heard a vivid reference to examinations as the tail that wags the dog. When high-stakes examinations are administered at specific and early times in a child’s educational journey, school activities are unavoidably oriented toward preparing students for them.
Educators know that examinations have limited pedagogical value, especially when students do not see exam scripts to learn from what they did right or wrong. A key purpose of examinations is to differentiate and hierarchise students—to place them on a scale and reward them differently. Examinations are an indispensable tool mainly if sorting is the key goal.
Streaming has been called different things at different times, but the basic principle is that kids are identified and sorted into separate classes, to learn different things, with different trajectories within the system. Some form of this begins around Primary 3, and the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at Primary 6 is a major fork in the road.
Offering multiple pathways is hard to refute in the abstract. But if kids have multiple strengths that take time to develop, then sorting them prematurely entails major risks of misidentification, misalignment, and ultimately the loss of human potential.
Moreover, as long as kids are rarely allowed to backtrack or change lanes, and if pathways lead to different destinations — different jobs, income, security, ability to meet needs — parents will continue to be anxious about their kids taking the pathways more likely to lead to economic and social security.
If multiple strengths are not equally rewarded, parents will not be able to make genuine choices to suit the talents of their kids.
The caricature of Singaporean parents as kiasu misses this important point—“losing” has major consequences. Most parents are trying to act responsibly. As long as high-stakes exams and streaming remain firmly embedded, parents have no choice but to try to get their kids to keep up.
This comes at great cost in their time, in the quality of parent-child relationships, and in a family’s financial resources. As long as there remain negative consequences to being in lower tracks, parents will try to keep their children out of them.
In such circumstances, investing in early childhood education risks merely intensifying competition.
EDUCATION AND INEQUALITY: YOU CANNOT TALK ABOUT ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER
If we take seriously what parents, teachers, and students are struggling with, we cannot detach education from high levels of income and wealth inequality. Our shared anxieties are fed by rising costs and precarity in housing, healthcare and retirement security.
We behave as we do because we are realistic about the society we live in.
Societies with less inequality have both downward and upward mobility; it must happen in both directions. Downward mobility is unfathomable for parents in societies where slight downward movement has major implications on the meeting of needs and well-being.
If we want parents to ease up on examination pressures, to spend less on tuition, to allow kids to develop myriad talents, to genuinely allow “merit” to land their kids where they land, attention must be paid to the meeting of needs at the end of the education road.
Inequality is not limited to one point in life's course, and cannot thus be resolved by exclusive focus on early childhood.
Investment in kids from low-income families must be accompanied by deep adjustments to move education away from getting kids to be able to perform narrow skills early, from persistent practices of sorting and hierarchising children, and from unequal rewards for people with varied strengths.
Let’s not, as President Halimah Yacob puts it in her Presidential Address, “tweak things at the margins,” but instead aim for “bold changes”. Singaporeans are ready.
Teo You Yenn is an Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University and author of This is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018).