When It Comes To Preschool, Does Father Really Know Best?

Parents in Ghana's capital city have embraced preschool as a way to vault their kids into a better future. But the children aren't learning. And the reason may surprise you.
It's their nightly ritual: Herman Agbavor sits down with his 5-year-old son, Herbert, to go over his homework. Source: Nana Kofi Acquah

Every evening after dinner, Herman Agbavor and his 5-year-old son Herbert have a ritual. Little Herbert climbs into his dad's lap, unzips his book bag and they go over his kindergarten homework.

The two of them have been doing some variation of this homework routine since Herbert was 1. That's when Agbavor first enrolled the boy in preschool.

They live in a working-class neighborhood of Ghana's capital city Accra — in a cement block apartment in a multifamily house that's got a television and lots of books but no indoor plumbing.

A few minutes into their session on a recent evening, they get to a page with instructions to trace some rectangles. The boy falters.

"T-R-A-C-E," says the father. "What does it spell?"

"Te?" offers Herbert in a small voice.

"You've got to learn how to read," Agbavor says intently. "It's very important. I'm not supposed to be reading for you all the time!"

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In Ghana right now there's a lot riding on getting your child to read by age 5. No one can pinpoint precisely when these expectations started. But there's a widespread sense that Africa is rising. Just last year Ghana ranked among the world's fastest growing economies. And like many parents, Agbavor is convinced that all sorts of jobs could be opening up for people who know things — skills like speaking English and working with computers. And so there's a trend here. Parents — even those with very low incomes — are putting their children in private schools at younger and younger ages.

This hope around preschool is something you see around the world. In rich and poor countries alike there's a recognition that quality preschool can give children an invaluable start in life. And in the U.S. there's a major push underway to get more children enrolled. But in Accra — and in fact in many fast-growing African cities — they've already achieved that. It's estimated that in Accra by the time children reach age 3, 80 percent of them are in preschool, twice the share in the United States.

But there is a problem with this picture. The government has tested Ghana's children as they move on to

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