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Experts See Challenges, Dangers, And Possibilities in Early School

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New York City officials are convinced that beginning school earlier will have a positive impact on the dropout rate, and to prove it, they point to a study that has attracted the attention of many education officials across the country.

According to Marian L. Schwarz, coordinator of youth services for the Office of the Mayor, the study: "Changed Lives: The Effects of the Perry Preschool Program on Youths Through Age 19," had a significant impact on Mayor Edward I. Koch's decision to push for earlier schooling.

Among other things, the first major longitudinal study to measure the effects of preschool education on the lives of students found that those who had attended a high-quality preschool program had higher graduation and employment rates and lower welfare, detention, and arrest rates than those who did not. (See Education Week, Sept. 19, 1984.)

Since the report was released in September by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, more than 3,000 copies have been distributed, according to David P. Weikart, the study's principal investigator.

"We're very pleased our study is being used to help people think out their responsibilities," Mr. Weikart said.

"Early-childhood education at age 4, when well done, can make long-term differences in the lives of children," he added. "Whether New York City can carry it off and do it is a question that needs to be studied."

Interest in Other States

A recent Education Week survey of the states found that a handful--including Connecticut, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and South Carolina--have taken steps toward or are considering proposals for programs for 4-year-olds.

What they need to consider, say Mr. Weikart and other education officials, is what kind of program they will offer.

"To simply make them junior kindergartens would be inappropriate," Mr. Weikart said last week.

Developing a Curriculum

One of the principal challenges, he noted, is developing a curriculum for 4-year-olds. Focusing on elementary phonics skills and number com-petencies "should not be on the agenda," he said.

"How do we help the child develop independence, problem-solving abilities, the capacity to work in a group, and responsibility? We have to be careful at age 4 that we build programs around these personality issues, and not pretend that if we just teach the alphabet all our problems will be solved," Mr. Weikart said.

Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, agreed.

"The one issue that we should avoid as we begin to think about educating children at the age of 4 is the whole issue of the 'super-baby syndrome,"' he said. "The concern is that 4-year-olds will be pushed to the point where they would be harmed, where they would be turned off to schooling. You don't educate a child by using the 1st-grade curriculum."

Mr. Sava noted that starting schooling earlier for all students will lessen the achievement gap between those who attend high-quality preschool programs and those who do not--or cannot afford to.

"Children who have been exposed to good early-childhood programs seem to have more self-confidence, are more assured, and are able to master the academic skills of the early academic years," he said. "When you look at a group of 20 youngsters, about 10 years ago the achievement gap was 2.5 years. Now the gap is about 3.5 years. Some youngsters come in and are ready to read and are reading, and others don't know their colors."

A False Panacea

But some educators, including Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University, believe too many are jumping on the early-schooling bandwagon in search of another "panacea and solution" for the ills of public education.

"It's a new wave of hysteria in this country," he said. "We keep asking schools to do more and more without giving them enough funds to do anything very well."

"There are so many needs and problems in public education today," he noted, "that this is the wrong priority."--lck

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