PRESCHOOL AROUND THE GLOBE The U.S. can't afford to ignore the payoff from early childhood education. Here are grade A lessons from six other countries.
By SUSAN CAMINITI REPORTER ASSOCIATES Jessica Skelly von Brachel and Katherine Bourbeau

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHEN IT COMES to early childhood education, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of the class. Nearly every other major industrialized nation -- and even some developing countries -- see the job of educating young children as a public responsibility, not simply a family issue. In France, for example, more than 80% of youngsters between the ages of 3 and 6 attend preschool programs. They learn language skills and how to socialize with other children. The cost is based on a family's income; in some of the poorer areas parents pay as little as one franc -- 16 cents -- a day. In the U.S., Head Start has been helping poor preschoolers and their families for more than 25 years. But despite its proven success, the federal program has the money to serve only 28% of eligible children. Families earning too much to qualify for Head Start and too little to afford private preschools -- in other words, most American families -- must scramble to find acceptable programs. Many cannot. ''Other countries have shown that if you want to make an investment in child care, it can work, and it doesn't break the bank,'' says Ellen Galinsky, co-director of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. ''In this country we can't seem to see the cost of not doing it.'' Slowly, that may be changing. President Bush has proposed that Head Start reach all eligible 4-year-olds by 1994. And Congress recently passed a child care block grant of $825 million for each of the next four years. But as the pictures on the following pages show, the U.S., for all its emphasis on competitiveness, has much to learn from its competitors about educating the very young.

JAPAN The Japanese have created a two-tier system of preschools: y-ochien for the children of mothers who do not work and hoikuen for the children of working parents. About 95% of youngsters enroll in one or the other. Run by the Ministry of Education, y-ochien are for kids age 3 to 6, who attend four hours a day. Hoikuen, supervised by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, take infants and toddlers as well. Even though hoikuen are considered less prestigious than y-ochien, tuition is higher -- about $45 a month, based on family income, vs. $37 -- because the children are cared for all day.

KENYA Even in Kenya, women have begun to leave home for the workplace as their country becomes less agricultural and more industrialized. Despite its scarce resources, Kenya has managed to organize preschools for 850,000 3- to 6-year- olds, about 30% of all children in that age group. Most preschools are community based; typically, village leaders organize raffles, dances, and other entertainment to raise the money needed to build and staff a school. Parents donate supplies -- from tables and chairs to paper and chalk. Teachers are usually middle-aged women, often with only a primary school education. However, about 40% of the teachers receive some kind of formal training. Although most Kenyan preschools are public -- and free -- competition for space is strong. Children with some reading and math ability have a better chance of getting in. Tuition at the few private schools is about $40 a month, within the reach of most middle-class families.

DENMARK Care of young children has come a long way in Denmark. As recently as the 1970s, the country had very few preschools, and its limited day care was used mainly by single mothers. Today working parents have a wide choice of public day care, and nearly 70% of children from 3 to 6 attend preschools. Programs are funded and operated by the government, although parents make a small contribution (average amount: $140 a month). A typical preschool has two teachers and one assistant for every 20 children. Instructors receive three years of training in teachers' colleges. Most schools open at 6:30 A.M., and kids who arrive before 8 can have a breakfast of cereal and milk or yogurt. Parents retrieve their children between 2:30 and 5 P.M. Danish youngsters get an early introduction to egalitarianism. As a rule, preschoolers aren't taught to read or write, so as not to put at a disadvantage the 30% of children who do not attend such programs. Another reason for the easygoing approach may be that Danish educators believe children should be allowed to -- as one of them put it -- ''finish playing.''

FRANCE The French pay starting preschool teachers $17,480 a year (vs. about $11,000 in the U.S.), and, perhaps as a result, France has a vintage early childhood education program. Most children from 3 to 6 enroll in public classes run by the Ministry of Education. To accommodate working parents, preschools offer activities before and after school, during vacations, and on Wednesdays, when school is not in session. Parents pay about $210 a year for this additional service. The French government subsidizes two kinds of day care programs for the infants and toddlers of working parents. Family day care, a collection of home-based caregivers, costs from $11 to $18 a day. Larger day care centers charge somewhat less.

CHINA Like many other countries, China has two distinct preschool programs: nurseries for children 2 months to 3 years, and kindergartens for older youngsters. The Ministry of Public Health oversees the nurseries, where the goal is to ensure that children are healthy and ready to learn. They are staffed mostly by nurses and cost $14 to $19 a month. Chinese kindergartens prepare children socially and academically for primary school. Three teachers supervise a typical class of 35 students eight hours a day. Kindergarten instructors attend four years of vocational school instead of high school before they are assigned to a class. In kindergarten, teachers place considerable emphasis on order and obedience, primarily to counteract the spoiling that occurs in many urban Chinese families, where only children are now the rule. Tuition is about $13 a month.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA Before revolution came to Czechoslovakia, all children age 3 to 6 were required by law to attend full-day preschools. Today, with such schooling voluntary, 90% of youngsters still go. The fact that 80% of all married women work outside the home makes all-day child care for infants and toddlers a necessity, and the government makes it available too. The cost for both programs is about 40 cents per day for each child, including lunch and two snacks. In the bad old days, churches and other private organizations were forbidden to form or run preschools, but many are now petitioning the Ministry of Education to do so.