With research showing that attending a nursery school gives children an important leg up for subsequent learning, parents in both Japan and the United States are determined to ensure their admission. Whether supply can meet demand, however, is entirely another question.

The situation is particularly bleak in Japan, where 90,907 applicants were reportedly unable to secure nursery school spots in 2016.

But admission is no assurance of a quality education. Certification standards exist in nursery school for the same reason they exist in upper grades. Nursery school is not glorified baby-sitting. It exists to socialize children, as well as provide the basis for learning to read and compute.

The best nursery schools are places to introduce children to traditional values, such as empathy and cooperation. For example, at the Komatsudani Childcare Center in Kyoto, older children spend a hour each afternoon caring for the youngest among them.

In the U.S., unfortunately, “superficial task demands, including giving directions and assigning routine tasks, predominate over children’s involvement in appropriate conceptual or class-based activities,” according to Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.

Too many parents who choose nursery schools, or what the U.S. refers to as “preschools,” equate obedience with quality. A silent classroom is not necessarily a good sign. No one is suggesting that children should be running wild, but quality is best determined by the overall atmosphere of the classroom.

That’s why in the final analysis, the best way for parents to choose a preschool is to directly observe what takes place between children, and between teacher and children. Or to put it differently, parents need to ask themselves if they would feel comfortable in that environment.

Once parents are convinced that a particular nursery school is a good fit for their child, they have to hope that there is a spot available. That’s not the case, however, in Japan and the U.S. For example, one parent in Japan was so desperate that she moved from Tokyo to Kawasaki in the hope that doing so would enhance her chances.

In the U.S. parents have gone a step further by engaging in blatant residency fraud. They use the address of a friend or relative to claim residency in a school district with quality schools and short wait lists.

Compounding matters in the U.S. is the lack of diversity. For example, in New York City’s preschools, 854 of the 1,861 preschool programs were dominated 70 percent or more by a single race. Some 302 programs were 90 percent or more single-race, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News,

This de facto segregation was strictly the result of geography. Quite understandably, parents want to send their children to preschools closest to their homes. Despite the policy of open enrollment for the city’s 4-year-olds, enrollment patterns reflect their neighborhoods. Segregation in preschool in New York City is even more prevalent than that of the city’s kindergartens, according to a 2016 report by the Century Foundation.

It’s not enough to open more nursery schools to meet the demand. They have to be staffed by professionals. That’s not easy. In Japan, some 760,000 qualified nursery school teachers have opted to leave the field. They cite low pay and onerous government regulations. As a result, there are about five openings for nursery school teachers for each applicant. The disconnect between supply and demand will persist in both Japan and the U.S. until preschool is accorded the same respect and recognition as upper grades.

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

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