Reforming Early Childhood Education as a Smart Investment for the Future: Stories from East Asia

I-Fang Lee, Chao-Ling Tseng, andHong-Ju Jun

Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) has been (re)nar- rated as an imperative socioeconomic investment in the twenty-first century. Globally, a popular and dominant discourse that “treats” ECEC as a good social investment through the theoretical lens of “human capital” has shifted the meanings of ECEC into pure economic rationality “seeing” quality provision in the early years as an effective approach for promoting economic growth in the future (e.g., see Heckman, 2012; The White House, 2014). Noticeably, in Starting Strong (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2001, 2006, 2011), it is emphasized that high-quality ECEC can make a major and positive contribution to any country’s national development and success in the new global knowledge-based economy. Hence, it is common to see how governments across different geopolitical spaces have come to acknowledge education as a critical driving force for promoting national development and progress while maintaining competitiveness in the global economy.

For example, in the United States, President Obama acknowledges the importance of quality preschool education and care for every child in America, urging Congress to expand “investment” in high-quality prekindergartens for all children (The White House, 2014). For another quick illustration, this time from East Asia, we highlight current official articulation on the role of education in Taiwan:

Education is the foundation of personal development, social advancement, vibrant economic prosperity, and national sustainability, and it shoulders the mission of enhancing national literacy, cultivating highly-skilled people, and promoting social progress. (Ministry of Education (MoE), 2014a)

This official position statement from the Taiwanese Ministry of Education reflects a “glocal” construction of how the planning of education is now being (re)conceptualized as a form of socioeconomic investment, which should yield positive sociocultural, educational, and economic dividends. Thus, this economically focused concept of ECEC has come to dominate systems of reasoning concerning education (being recognized as the foundation of education, contemporary reforms, and current policies concerning ECEC) within the geopolitical spaces of East Asia as well as elsewhere throughout the world, often reflecting and echoing a dominant global trend of neoliberal political economic educational discourse. As noted by Moss, “The current policy interest in early childhood education and care is driven by an investment narrative, a story of quality and high returns emerging from a dominant neoliberal political economy” (2013, p. 370).

While it may appear to make sense to rationalize the importance of education through the mode of economics, arguing, for example, that every dollar that we spend or invest at the present moment for quality ECEC programs will bring us back valuable social and economic returns within a few years, it is dangerous to underestimate the effects of a neoliberal political economic system of reasoning (for detailed discussion on this, see The Heckman Equation at https:// As Apple reminds us, “Rather than taking neoliberal claims at face value, we should want to ask about their hidden effects that are too often invisible in the rhetoric and metaphors of their proponents” (2001, p. 70). Therefore, working against the dominant trends of accepting and implementing neoliberalism in educational reform discourse as a miracle solution to ensure quality and to promise equality and equity for all, our intention in this chapter is to unpack the glocal effects of neoliberalism on ECEC by highlighting current efforts of reforms in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea as cases from East Asia for critical analysis.

Drawing from Chen’s (2010) work on Asia as Method that looks at inter-Asian spatial relationships of modernity and globalization and resonating with Ball’s (2012) work on Global Education Inc. that focuses on the how of neoliberalism, we seek to understand how and what particular strands of neoliberal imaginary are promoted in East Asian locations through which dominant notions of social development and economic productivity are mobilized. In the first section of this chapter, we begin by presenting an overview of the current ECEC systems in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea while highlighting some of the current and key reforms and policies. Such overviews concerning the systems of ECEC come to provide sociocultural, political, and educational contexts. In particular, we highlight a popular contemporary reform initiative—that of the preschool voucher in East Asia.

In the second section of the chapter, we draw on post-structural conceptual and theoretical frameworks, tapping into these perspectives to rethink how reform policies such as preschool vouchers interject new ways of rationalization. Meanwhile, by grappling with Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) conceptual framework, we come to conceptualize the current waves of reforms in East Asia as processes of “de-territorialization” and “re-territorialization” through which new spaces of entangled (im)possibilities for the assemblages of quality ECEC are created. We treat the following categories of texts as empirical data: key policy documents inside and outside of the field of ECEC within the past ten years, public/official records of statistics from government websites, and major political shifts as well as changes related to different eras of political leadership or governance. Therefore, deploying post-structural analytical tools to reread and unpack popular East Asian ECEC reform discourses, we engage in a “rhizomatic mapping process” through which it becomes possible to identify “lines of flight” that shape dominant political concepts of affordability, accessibility, and accountability of the present global and local political climates.

Hence, the core discussions in this chapter problematize the following: How is ECEC (re)crafted at the local levels? What are the forces complementing as well as competing for the assemblage of a new ECEC under various trajectories of sociocultural and political debates? How are issues of social inclusion and exclusion played out in different East Asian localities? Through these questions and discussions, we hope to illustrate how dominant neoliberal policies come to create new conditions for the (im)possibilities of quality education and care provision for children and families.

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