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The dramatic increase in the number of pre-kindergarten schools in Japan — also known as nursery schools — is applauded as a long overdue response to parental demand. But despite the fanfare, the movement is not a panacea. At least that’s the hard lesson the United States learned much to its chagrin.

In a well-intentioned attempt to provide all children with the wherewithal to prepare them for success in later schooling, the U.S. launched Head Start, a ground-breaking program in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. At the time, expectations were high that it would help level the uneven playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and narrow the stubborn achievement gap.

But on Christmas Eve 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services released a 346-page report about Head Start. It concluded that the initial benefits faded by the end of the 3rd grade. In short, the $200 billion or so spent since the beginning did not produce lasting benefits. The decision to make the results public on that particular date alone, even though the report was dated October 2012, was seen by many as an attempt to bury the disappointing and embarrassing news.

Since then, preschooling in the U.S. has undergone intense scrutiny. Specialists believe that the key to improvement in outcomes, particularly for children from low-income households, lies in the quality of the programs. That means hiring teachers who are certified in early education, and supporting them with salaries and working conditions commensurate with other public-school teachers.

Too often nursery school, or preschool as it is called in the U.S., amounted in the past to little more than glorified day care. Today, however, teachers are expected to focus on developing cognitive, physical and social skills. As a result, preschool needs to be integrated into the K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) system of education, rather than treated as a simple add-on.

The rationale for this approach is based on the widely accepted belief by childhood experts that most of the foundation for future academic performance is set during the first five years of life. Nevertheless, in spite of this recognition great care has to be taken not to turn preschool into premature learning centers.

That’s why play is so important. Although it is often thought of as antithetical to learning, the opposite is really true. Play teaches children about cooperation, self-control and creativity, among other things. These are indispensable lessons for success in subsequent class settings. Teacher-led activities have their place in preschool, but they are no substitute for child-led playtime.

In 1998, Oklahoma passed one of the nation’s first state-funded preschool programs for all 4-year-olds. Since then, enrollment has soared from 9,000 to more than 40,000. But like Japan, Oklahoma has been hard pressed to recruit enough teachers with early-education credentials.

Japan is presently at a nursery school crossroads. The “Comprehensive Support System for Children and Childrearing” that was launched in April is an effort to eliminate the waiting list by fiscal 2017 by expanding facilities to accommodate 200,000 more children. It’s a good start. But if the U.S. is any guide, Japan has to be careful that the growth in the number of nursery schools does not come at the cost of professional staffing.

Too much is on the line for all stakeholders.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. He taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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