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Special Report

Early Education

Parents Are Easy Prey

Young parents in urban China are often lured by fancy ads for various forms of early childhood education. But some classes may be doing more harm than good

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

Yan Li, 36, is still disappointed with her son’s education. Her little boy is three now, but when he was just a year and a half she spent 19,000 yuan (US$2,734) to get him registered in the “Romp’n’Roll” classes in the swish Beijing suburb of Shunyi. But the program, a US franchise for early education, was, in her words, “crappy.” 

The program was supposedly bilingual – part taught by a strictlytrained native English speaker, and part by a Chinese assistant with both teaching skills and a strong command of English. But, says Yan, “the first three classes I took my son to were all led by either temporary substitute foreign teachers or Chinese assistants who seemed to lack professional training.” When she realized the poor quality of the program, she met with the manager personally and asked to withdraw her son, and for a refund. “He agreed without any argument,” she said, “I discovered that he had no experience in education at all – and I could tell my encounter was typical of the generally chaotic situation of the early education market in China.” 

But Yan Li was in an exceptional position, since she spoke fluent English herself. Most of her contemporaries, she says, were blind to the program’s flaws and were confident that the program met US standards of quality.  

Early decisions 

Hong Yu, a young mother in Yichang, Hubei Province, started to plan for her child’s early education when the baby was just three months old. Her contemporaries were already talking over which option was best, and the heated discussion among her peers made Hong even more anxious about picking the proper course for her child. Finally, after examining a number of similar programs, she chose a domestic brand that cost her over 16,000 yuan (US$2,303). As an average wage earner in a third-tier city, that was a lot of money. 

The early education market in China began to boom around the turn of the 2000s into the 2010s, as a number of brands both foreign and domestic made their mark, including Yiying Tianshi (Baby Angel), Gymboree, Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio. 

According to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics, the domestic market for early childhood education increased from 62 billion yuan (US$ 8.9b) in 2010 to over 145 billion yuan (US$20.9b) in 2015 and will continue to increase to over 212 billion (US$30.5b) in 2017. There are already tens of thousands of early education organizations across China, mostly along the developed eastern seaboard. 

Chen Yidong, chairman of GymChina, introduced Gymboree, a US brand, to China in 2003 when the idea of early education was a novelty in China. Xia Hongyu, Chen’s business partner, told  
 sohu.com in 2009: “Right now there are over ten million kids under three in China’s urban areas. Each family spent an average of over 3,000 yuan (US$432) on early education, and the market thus could be more than 30 billion yuan (US$4.32 billion) in total ... So early childhood education has the largest potential and brightest future in the education industry.” 

Aiming to initially expand the market, GymChina targeted highearning Chinese with experience abroad and chose Gubei, a high-end community in Shanghai, to launch their first program. The requirements for teachers, according to Xia, were bilingual teaching ability, singing skills, an outgoing personality and an understanding of child psychology. “We paid quite a competitive salary of 7,000 to 8,000 yuan [US$ 1,008 to 1,152] at that time to attract qualified teachers,” added Xia.

Children learn the Three-Character Classic, one of the Chinese texts traditionally used for teaching young children, in the city of Rizhao, Shandong Province, November 11, 2016 

The high investment paid off and the market for early education expanded swiftly. Since the Chinese born in the 1980s want to give their own children everything, marketers know how to make use of their insecurities. Wang Yuming, the owner of a private early education institute, explained to our reporter that parents usually pay more attention to whether the program will have an immediate effect on their children’s behavior, rather than to the quality of the teachers and the philosophy of the education program. “Thus during our marketing, we would deliberately induce anxiety about ‘losing at the starting line’ among parents,” added Wang: “Some marketers would state directly that if parents failed to develop their child’s potential before they were three, they would lose the best opportunity for child development.” Specially-designed programs for Chinese parents emphasize enhancing cognitive development and early learning. 

Some imported education theories have made changes to meet Chinese parents’ unique demands. Mao Qihua, a franchisee of Gymboree, pointed out that when the program was introduced into the Chinese market, it added new elements and de-emphasized social skills. “Linking early childhood education with school education is part of the localization of the program, just like KFC and McDonald’s added congee [congealed Chinese breakfast food] to their menus in China,” said Mao. 

The market developed fast, and urban parents started to see paying for early education as an indispensable preschool necessity. In 2009, Mao Qihua’s franchised institute expanded its recruitment area and numbers increased from just over 100 kids at first to over 1,000. Other similar brands including My Gym and Gym Baby gradually emerged. According to statistics released by shentongchina.com in 2011, there were then a total of 10,450 early childhood education organizations in China, with over 17.8 percent funded with foreign investment. The biggest markets were in the big cities. 

Children play in the mud at the entrance of a department store in the city of Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, August 15, 2015 

Professor Liu Yan from Beijing Normal University pointed out at a conference in 2015 that some institutions were ripping off parents. The general price for an hourly class ranges from dozens of yuan to over 200 yuan (US$5-30). “High prices are a marketing technique for most early education institutions,” Yin Fei, a teacher from Nanjing Parent School, told NewsChina that parents normally regard high prices as indicating high quality education.  

Mixed Results 
The modern idea of early education dates back to the early 1900s, when Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator, developed techniques that differed sharply from the regimented and harsh schooling of the day. Based on her work with mentally handicapped children, she emphasized respect and understanding for each individual child and created practical equipment to help develop sensory perception and motor skills. 

By the 1910s, the Montessori approach was popular worldwide, and remains so today. “In China, the reality is complicated; lots of places claim to be Montessori schools and charge high fees as a result, but very few of them are actually authorized Montessori schools with strictly-trained teachers,”an assistant teacher from one of the authorized Beijing Montessori Institutes, who asked to be quoted anonymously told NewsChina in late December, 2016. 

The source said that under the Montessori principles, school should not focus on teaching “knowledge,” but rather on observing children’s inborn talents in a peaceful and undisturbed environment, “The first three years are vital to cultivate a sense of security and concentration in kids, so the most important thing is for parents to accompany their child,” the source added, “But most domestic chains don’t follow this rule, which hurts children’s development as a result.” 

Mr. Jia, a teacher with Ms. Hong Montessori Academy in Beijing told our reporter in late December that the number of genuinely qualified teachers for Montessori programs in Beijing is very limited, thus it is hard for parents to discern the qualified candidates from a large pool of what claim to be “Montessori schools.” 

Apart from concepts imported from other countries, “indigenous” early education theories have also emerged inside China. With a revival of guoxue, or “national studies” in China since the late 1990s, reading and memorizing Confucian texts and other Chinese classics has become a trend (“National Studies: Back to Our Roots,” NewsChina Volume No. 086.) Ironically, this took off at the same time as Montessori schools, which are strongly opposed to rote learning. 

Meng Danmei, 46, a disciple of Taiwanese educator Wang Caigui, who advocated reading classics to children, started to introduce the method into early childhood education in 2007. She launched a new series of products called “Reading Classics to Babies,” which includes MP3 programs and speakers containing Chinese classics; the Gospel of Matthew read in English, French, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek; English classics read in English; flashcards written with Chinese characters; and pictures of world-renowned paintings. In Meng’s theory, music, readings and vocabulary of these products can be broadcast to children at ages from zero to three or even to the mother’s wombs. Meng claims that this is more likely to make children become philosophers and scientists. 

The whole set is priced at 16,800 yuan (US$2,420.) A Hong Kongbased mother of a two-year-old child complained to the reporter of the side effects of having her child exposed too early to the product. “I spent most of the time having my kid listen to those classics while ignoring daily communication with him, now he is two, but could not speak properly compared to his peers.” Evidence on the value of infants learning the classics is scant to non-existent, but psychologists and educators are almost unanimous on the importance of regular communication – including “baby talk” – between parents and children for brain development. 

But Meng’s product, despite being criticized as dull and rigid, is a consumer hit. In mid-November, 2016, Meng Danmei held a publicity event at the Shandong University of Technology in Zibo to promote her theory to a hundred or so young parents. Meng said she was determined to expand the market in Shandong Province – the home of Confucius – this time. At the live show, our reporter noted that mothers seemed excited about and interested in her theory. 

Feng Dequan, the founder of another well-known program, “Early Education Revolution” promoted the concept of developing children’s potential through learning Chinese characters at an early age. To attract parents’ attention, he emphasized the importance of a child’s first three years in neuroscience. Feng claims that kids can recognize 2,000 characters at the age of two and 3,000 by three if they followed his program. 

The  boom in early childhood education started a decade earlier in the US than China. Investigative journalist Susan Gregory Thomas wrote in her book Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds as early as 2007 that “today’s babies and toddlers spend more time in preschool or day care than they ever have in the past, either because their upper-middle-class parents worry about ‘socializing’ an only child or because both have jobs. [...] Peer pressure, a prime medium for marketing to children, starts earlier than ever.” 

Sara  Mead, an education policy expert who works for the US Bellwether Group, pointed out the fallacies of some theories in her research paper “Million Dollar Babies: Why Infants Can’t Be Hardwired for Success”: “While neural connections in babies’ brains grow rapidly in the early years, adults can’t make newborns smarter or more successful by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einsteininspired blocks. Nor is there any neuroscience evidence that suggests that the earliest years are a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn three.” 

Regulatory Vacuum 

Li Lizhen, a graduate student at Nanchang University has researched the management of China’s domestic early education services. She discovered teachers from some programs do not have professional training, and instead repackage other’s material and pass it off as their own through combining different theories from various sources. For example, they might tweak a game by using a plastic ball rather than a wooden horse to avoid copyright infringement. 

Montessori theory has been extensively abused in China. The insider source told the reporter that no regulations so far can prohibit unqualified teachers from working in a Montessori school inside China. “Theoretically speaking, Montessori education institutes will not recruit teachers with a conventional teaching background, but now there are a large number of teachers using conventional teaching methodologies in China who have obtained certification from AMI [Association Montessori Internationale] and thus call themselves Montessori teachers,” the source told our reporter, “Ordinary parents can easily be swindled.” 

Li Shuying, a professor at Beijing Normal University, and deputy chairperson of the China Montessori Education Association cautioned that Montessori education has been misused by some people as a gimmick to lure parents and make money. “Some supposed Montessori training programs in China are conducted in just a week or so, and teachers that graduate from such programs will definitely mislead children in the real world,” Li said. 
Parents demand a refund at an early child education institution in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, August 15, 2016 

Professor Liu Yan confirmed that there is no supervision for early education schools at the moment in China. “Most early education institutions register under the guideline of the industrial and commercial bureau either as consulting companies, playschools or education training centers,” Liu explained, adding that no standards or entrance regulations are currently available for this industry. The government department is only responsible for management and regulation of kindergartens.

In 2003, the Ministry of Education (MOE) issued a guideline for the reform and development of preschool education, clearly stating to “enhance parents’ capacity in scientifically educating their children under six years old.” Then in early 2013, the MOE released a decision on setting 14 districts in Shanghai and Beijing to conduct trial programs for early childhood education on kids aged from zero to three. The main purpose for the trial program is to explore systems including management, regulation and service patterns. According to Liu Yan, as the central government has clarified that as the MOE is responsible for the early education market, the Ministry should gradually create a system of regulation and supervision for the field. 

Professor Yin Fei from Nanjing Normal University believes early childhood education should mostly focus on parents or grandparents who are taking care of young kids. “It is important for parents to learn how to be qualified and have a proper influence upon their children,” explained Yin to NewsChina: “but the way Chinese parents think, spending money on themselves rather than on their children directly is not worth it.”