Kindergartens and the paradoxes of choice

In my first kindergarten article, I described what kindergarten interviews in Hong Kong are actually like. I also updated you on Daughter Tall’s progress in the kindergarten we eventually chose. MrB has also chronicled his family’s adventures in kindergarten choice.

In this installment, I’d like to explore some of the paradoxes inherent to the process of making a choice itself. How you handle these paradoxes might – or might not – affect your choice of kindergarten.

Paradox 1: The Hong Kong kindergarten market is a free market, but I feel like I’ve got no choice . . . .

In theory, picking a kindergarten in Hong Kong is an almost perfect example of an educational ‘free market’ -- the Government does not fund kindergartens, so all of those who want their children to attend kindergarten must choose and pay for one themselves. As a generally pro-free-market kind of guy, I should be all in favor of choosing Toddler Tall’s kindergarten. And I am. I resent the notion that any government – and its education ‘experts’ – can tell me and Mrs Tall how best to educate our daughter. So I’m glad that the Hong Kong government allows for at least a degree of school choice all the way through secondary school (although it could certainly do better, especially in acknowledging the growth and advantages of home schooling for many parents).

But here’s the kicker: although the HK Government more or less washes its hands of kindergarten education, simply not sending your child to one is almost unheard of. Primary schools here, including Government-run ones, look deeply askance on children lacking three full years of quite intensive kindergarten preparation. A child who didn’t attend kindergarten here would need some serious home tutoring to keep pace, and would likely be rejected by most primary schools when the time to apply to them came around.

So there’s a free market in kindergartens here, all right, but one of the fundamental choices – i.e. whether or not to keep your three-to-five-year-olds at home – is essentially eliminated by broad assumptions that supersede HK’s official education policy.

Paradox 2: Choice empowers parents, but it doesn’t feel very empowering while it’s actually happening.

This is true to a much greater extent than I’d anticipated.

When we Talls embarked on our kindergarten selection process, I was quite cavalier. Not for me, sweating over something so patently ridiculous as admissions interviews for toddlers. But you know, it turned out to be very hard to maintain a devil-may-care attitude when your own flesh and blood’s very future is at stake – or so it seems at the time.

During Toddler Tall’s interviews I thought back on my own parents’ school selection process for my siblings and me: there wasn’t one. We grew up in a small town, none of us went to pre-school, and all of us went straight to the one public (i.e. government) school, and that’s where we stayed until we were finished. And it was a good school. My parents did not ever have to think about it. You can’t get lower-stress than that!

Conversely, for many Hong Kong parents, choosing schools is an enormous psychological burden. When you assume educational opportunity is a funnel that narrows every time your child doesn’t get admitted to a particular school, it’s hard to avoid feeling panicky when you receive a rejection letter.

Paradox 3: You probably want to know everything about the kindergartens you’re considering so that you can make an ‘informed choice’, but kindergartens carefully control and limit the information they give you.

Mrs Tall and I combine to form a fairly formidable school-choice analysis team. We’re relatively well-educated ourselves, across a range of disciplines. We’ve got access to schools information in both Chinese and English. I’m (supposedly, at least) a professional in matters pedagogical, and I was broadly familiar with the current literature on school choice in the very period in which I was making such a choice. Mrs Tall is a product of the HK school system, so she knows how it works. And so on.

Yet when it came down to finding out what we really wanted to know about the kindergartens we were considering for Daughter Tall, our advantages did not seem so great! Schools here do put out brochures, and some have websites. Parents can subject these documents to highly sophisticated and lengthy analysis, but what do they really tell you? You might find something objectionable that puts you off a school, but for obvious reasons, kindergartens promote quite generic happy fun smiling images of themselves, i.e. that they hire only well-trained teachers, that they care for the whole child, that they use the most effective educational methods, and so on. You’re never going to see a photo of a crying child in a kindergarten’s promotional materials!

Word of mouth is therefore important in painting in the background to any school’s portrait. People in Hong Kong with small children sometimes seem to talk about nothing other than school admissions and interviews. And as I mentioned in my first installment, there are very active online forums in which highly concerned parents engage in extended discussions of particular schools, admission strategies, and so on. If you have the time and inclination, reading a lot of these discussions, and maybe joining in, can give you a broad picture of how certain schools are perceived, and how they function in practice. But caution is needed here, of course: individuals are highly biased, especially for/against certain schools to which their darlings either did/did not gain admission.

We Talls found that physically visiting a school was the most telling and useful way to judge its suitability. There’s simply no substitute for seeing something face to face, no matter how ‘virtual’ our world is becoming.

Paradox 4: I know there’s a perfect kindergarten out there, but they all look the same to me!

This point is really a follow-up to Paradox 3. When we going through our rush of kindergarten interviews/visits, it became hard to keep track of each school’s salient features, no matter how forthcoming the teachers/other school representatives we talked to actually were.

Even when we sorted out a shortlist of kindergartens we thought were basically okay, there were still many variables to consider. Did we want a kindergarten with a ‘traditional’ or a ‘progressive’ educational philosophy? One that really pushes English or Putonghua, or one that doesn’t? A big one or a small one, in terms of student numbers? One that’s attached to a primary school (thereby providing a ‘through-train’ effect, i.e. a higher chance your kid will get into the associated primary school three years down the road) or one that’s independent? And so on.

When it came down to it, I realized there were only a few things I really cared about:

  1. I wanted Daughter Tall to be given a good foundation for reading in English by being taught phonics systematically.
  2. Both Mrs Tall and I were not keen on a highly ‘progressive’ approach in which kids are left to wander around and ‘actively discover their love of learning to love to learn active discovery’, or however the up-to-the-minute phrasing goes. I think you can get away with this approach with upper-middle class children in western countries who will be attending relatively undemanding primary schools, but since our plan is to send Daughter Tall to local schools, it’s probably not the best preparation for what awaits her.
  3. We thought the attitude a kindergarten’s teachers showed to the children running around in the interviews was crucial. Did they look bored or irritated (as I would certainly look in such a situation; being responsible for other people’s small children strikes me as one of the world’s tougher jobs)? Even worse, maybe, were they so young/inexperienced/generally inept that they looked intimidated by the seething, ankle-biting masses? Or did they have that tender yet steely authority that works so well on dogs, small children, and misbehaving men (forgive me for the assumptions of femininity here, but you’re just not going to find many males teaching in Hong Kong kindergartens)?

Paradox 5: A lot of current research is leaning towards ‘nature’, i.e. heredity, being at least as important, and very possibly more so, than ‘nurture’, so who knows if the fine distinctions we agonize over when trying to choose kindergartens and schools really make much difference in how our kids turn out?

Let’s end on that note of sublime relief!


Getting into kindergarten around the world . . . .

Slate magazine today carries two fun articles on kindergarten admissions.

The first asks the question, 'Does interviewing a two-year-old mean anything at all?'

The second recounts one expat-in-London's adventure in getting her daughter into a preschool there.