Despite the importance of pre-kindergarten education, Japan and the United States stand alone among industrialized nations in failing to provide the necessary funding and support to make this first step in formal schooling a success. As a result, toddlers in both countries continue to be shortchanged in reaching their full potential.

In many respects, however, Japan treats nursery school even worse than the U.S. The low pay and maze of government regulations have led 760,000 qualified teachers to date to leave the field completely. At present, there are five openings for each applicant. With average salaries of ¥216,000 a month, including overtime, the situation is only going to get worse.

Enough skilled and experienced teachers at this level can never be recruited and retained until they are treated as true professionals. Too often, they are seen as glorified babysitters, which is insulting given what is expected of them in teaching traditional Japanese values. That’s why nursery schools in Japan need to provide evidence that they satisfy professional standards before receiving a license to operate. Doing so would place a floor — but not a ceiling — on the qualifications of those interested in teaching the youngest children.

Although the U.S. is a step ahead of Japan in educating the youngest children, it still qualifies as one of the worst countries in the developed world. Local, state and federal governments invest a pittance in the first five years of a child’s life, placing it 35th, according to the OECD.

A new study by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley found that the earliest educators are among the lowest paid workers in the country, even when their education and certifications are comparable to kindergarten teachers. Their median wage was $9.77 an hour in 2015 compared with $13.74 an hour for pre-kindergarten teachers who take over when children turn 3. The disparity is even greater when compared with kindergarten teachers who earned a median wage of $24.83 an hour.

Unless the U.S. begins to make preschool education a priority, it’s unlikely that the percentage of preschool children will increase above the current level. For children from low-income homes in particular, that would be a major blow. They enter kindergarten already three months behind children from higher-income homes, and never catch up.

But simply throwing more money at the problem in Japan and the U.S. is not enough. Smaller classes, a challenging curriculum, and higher qualifications for teachers are indispensable for pre-kindergarten success. Moreover, pre-kindergarten teachers need the same stable career path provided to their kindergarten through 12th-grade counterparts.

The model is New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district. Free, full-day pre-kindergarten education is available to all children. Teachers also must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Affluent parents who routinely spend $15,000 a year or more for pre-kindergarten education support this program, while low-income parents call it indispensable.

Pre-kindergarten education, if done properly, can inculcate values like patience, manners, and perseverance that last a lifetime. It’s impossible to put a price on their worth. That’s a lesson Japan and the U.S. need to bear in mind.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. He taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years.

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