Summer Reading: Preschool in Three Cultures

In the mid-1980s, anthropologist Joseph Tobin published the landmark study Preschool in Three Cultures: China, Japan and the United States. Two years ago, with colleagues Yeh Hsueh and Mayumi Karasawa, he published a new version, Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited. The original book looked at one preschool from each of the three countries; the new book expands to two schools. For anyone interested in preschool and Latino students, there’s a slice of the new book that takes us inside a publicly funded preschool serving many Latino children in the first decade of the 21st century.

The new school in the U.S. section of the book is Alhambra Preschool, a public preschool that operated on the grounds of a middle school in the Alhambra School District in Phoenix, Ariz.  (Sadly, a look at the district’s website indicates that the program no longer exists as it did when the research was done. The state money that funded the program disappeared thanks to the recession.)

Though much of the discussion of the school focuses on it as a battleground between the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s model of Developmentally Appropriate Practice and No Child Left Behind’s cultural and political push to introduce young children to more formal academics, a reader with eyes on issues facing Latino children and their schools will find plenty more to ponder here.

One thing the researchers captured that illustrates a huge policy issue is what “blending funding streams” looks like on the ground. They struggled to define what exactly one “preschool day” was because the shape of the day looked very different from the perspective of preschool teachers (who taught a morning and an afternoon class), and the children–whose day on the site  could range from 2 1/2 hours to ten hours depending on whether they were in daycare or not. Plus, the children in the state-funded program shared outdoor time with tuition-paying children. Staff had to deal with the competing regulations ranging from different funding streams and enrollment policies (preschool only accepted legal immigrants, daycare accepted all children regardless of status) to the contrasts between health guidelines requiring staff to use plastic gloves when serving food and NAEYC’s recommendation to serve food family-style.

In 2001, the authors showed videotapes from their research at Alhambra to other American early educators and to Alhambra parents. The difference in each audience’s reception is striking. Those educators trained in the NAEYC model criticized the Alhambra program for its lack of free play time and multicultural curriculum. While the teachers watching the video spoke positively about the presence of Spanish in the classroom–each class had at least one Spanish-speaking teacher and though children were encouraged to learn English, they could speak Spanish at will and be understood–they wanted the program to give Spanish more equal weight with English.

Meanwhile, the parents were uniformly supportive of the school’s focus on English. Most parents said it was their responsibility to teach Spanish and Mexican culture to their children. (One father in the postscreening discussion said he would like his children to be taught more about Mexican holidays and cultural traditions so they could have more common ground with their Mexican relatives.) The researchers also noted the class divisions present in discussions of whether preschool should focus on formal academics and school preparation or make more use of free play and as a learning tool. People from working-class backgrounds, regardless of race or ethnicity, tend to believe preschool should teach school routines and skills while people from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds tend to believe preschool should give children more autonomy, whether it’s free play, family-style eating or dispute resolution with other children.

One of the great pleasures of this book is the view beyond these debates in just America into Japan and China. In Japan, the preschool visited takes unstructured play to levels almost unheard-of here, focusing much more intently on children’s social-emotional development than on academic preparation. Meanwhile, early educators in China are grappling with how to balance traditional Chinese emphasis on the group with an increasing focus on individual activity and free play.

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One thought on “Summer Reading: Preschool in Three Cultures

  1. Thanks for the info! We had to read this book as part of a recent course I took. We had the opportunity to watch the videos as well and the reactions in the room were all very different from student to student (all of whom are involved in education in some form). I believe we were looking at an older edition, so I’m excited to read through the new slice of info. 🙂

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