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New York Considers Enrolling Students At Age Four

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New York State's education department is studying a proposal that would bring children to school at age 4 and gradually phase out the 12th grade--a plan that officials say would adjust the schools to modern demands as well as address teacher shortages.

Commissioner Gordon M. Ambach said his department was studying the proposal, under which most graduating students would be 16 years old, because schools need "bold thinking" to deal with demographic changes and declining revenues.

The plan would take effect no sooner than the middle of the decade, and it would be phased in over a 10-year period, Mr. Ambach said.

College At An Earlier Age

With a high-school teacher shortage and a college-faculty surplus projected for the end of the decade, Mr. Ambach said, students should move to college at an earlier age so they can get the kind of instruction that may not be available in most high schools.

Although originally billed as a way to save money, Mr. Ambach said the proposal was strictly "pedagogical and to ... to deal with the shortage of teachers."

Mr. Ambach stressed that he had not made any formal recommendations to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo or to the New York Board of Regents. "We're talking about general concepts that we should look at," he said.

Education experts last week criticized the proposal to phase out the 12th grade, but generally praised the idea of getting children enrolled at an earlier age.

"If we want more out of education--and if we look at what the Japanese and Europeans are doing--we're going to have to pay for it," said Michael O'Keefe, vice president for program and policy studies for the Car-negie Foundation. "One of the realities is that our kids already go to school a lot less."

But Mr. Ambach said that the proposal would not necessarily mean that students spend less "time on task" than they do now. He said the school day and the school year might be lengthened so that students spend more time on basic subjects.

In addition, he said, a survey of New York preschool programs shows that students who receive early instruction "get the skills they need [to succeed academically] and they keep them" better than those who start school later.

Mr. Ambach acknowledged that this improvement may be due more to the greater time spent in school. But, he said, "what we're talking about here is a change in the whole structure. The research clearly shows that kids are capable of handling school at an earlier age."

Albert Shanker, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said he supported the concept of beginning school at an earlier age but had not studied the possible effects of ending public education after the 11th grade.

Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, said he agreed that "academic development will come along a lot faster" if children begin school earlier. But, he said, cutting a year in high school is "not sound because of the larger and larger body of knowledge people need these days."

The final year in high school is a good place to cut, Mr. Ambach said, because it often falls prey to "senioritis," a feeling of listlessness for the many seniors that complete most graduation requirements in the 11th grade.

The answer to that problem, said critics of Mr. Ambach's plan, is to make high-school graduation and college-entrance standards tougher. Mr. O'Keefe of the Carnegie Foundation suggested an expansion of the already-growing advanced-placement programs in high schools.

He rejects that approach, Mr. Ambach said, because of the projected shortage of high-school teachers, especially in science and mathematics. "Instead of just adding to the high-school level, let's take advantage of the probable surplus at the college level," he said.

Parents Would Object

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said many parents would object to the new scheme because they would want more supervision of their children than most colleges now offer.

"They're not ready to have their 16-year-old children go off to college since the colleges don't practice in loco parentis," Mr. Thomson said. A minor is not sufficiently mature to handle all of the options."

The Board of Regents would probably have to approve Mr. Ambach's plan before it is implemented. Members of the state Senate and Assembly said the plan could require an amendment to the state's education law, which requires school attendance between ages 6 and 16.


Gordon M. Ambach of New York

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