One of the working moms I know who sends her kid to an elementary school in the United States, hereinafter Ms. A, always says that she can’t wait to send her three-year-old to an elementary school. American children usually begin elementary school with kindergarten (grade K) around age 5. When I asked Ms. A what brought her to think like that, she said, “It is convenient for me because if my kids take after-school programs, she can pick up both kids at the same time at 6 p.m. “Although the exact fees for preschools differ by region and institution, it costs about 1,500 dollars a month.” Her son’s school finishes at 3:40 p.m. but with the after-school programs, he can stay at school until 6 p.m.
In Korea, kindergartens are where preschoolers go, but in the U.S., kindergarten exists as one of the grades in elementary school. However, grade K in the U.S. doesn’t have to do with moving down the elementary school admission age by one year like the South Korean Ministry of Education’s proposal, which ended up with the resignation of its minister. Instead, it is a primary program for age 5 that enables their first-time learning of rules needed to be followed in a group. The average class size of kindergarten in the U.S. is no more than 20 children with one teacher and two assistant teachers. The teachers help students when they need them: when they need to go to the toilet, they can’t button up or open a water bottle on their own.
Indeed, there was enough controversy over the elementary school admission age in the U.S as well. Some studies say children who started school at age 6 had better self-control and others say starting at age 5 closes the education gap. Mandatory elementary school admission ages differ by state. States that mandate children to enter school at age 6 including New York and California are the ones that just want to give another option for parents with the guarantee of public education for five-year-olds.
Most U.S. parents choose to send their five-year-olds to elementary school because there’s no reason to put off going to school as public schools are free, early entrances to school close gaps in care, and five-year-olds can learn alphabet and numbers at school. To be sure, even in the U.S., some districts are oddly crazy about education, but it is mostly witnessed in Parent-Teacher Association activities or private lessons for art and sports. They are not into making students learn ahead of their grades.
For Korean parents, sending their children to elementary school earlier is close to a nightmare. They fear gaps in care, as grade 1 in elementary school finishes school before 1 p.m., unlike preschools which finish at 3 or 4 p.m. Winning a slot in after-school programs is as difficult as winning a seat for a BTS concert. All Korean parents are afraid of their children lagging. How children could solve a descriptive math problem when they have to learn the Korean alphabet in elementary school? Many working moms quit their job by the time their children enter elementary school.
The Ministry of Education dropped this fearful proposal like a bomb without any answers to these questions: what will be the curriculum for five-year-olds, how many teachers will be assigned to them, and will there be any solutions to gaps in care. To be sure, the current situation in Korea where more and more parents are trying to start private classes for toddlers earlier is a huge social problem. Therefore, the government needs to expand the scope of public education. The State of New York in the U.S. is expanding the scope of public education to preschools, and France starts mandatory education from age 3. But with the right program for the right age. As the proposal just aims to lower the admission age without extending the total 12-grade scheme, we cannot say that it is expanding the scope of public education. I am still confused about the purpose and grounds for this proposal.