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Policy Is Based Too Heavily On Scant Data, Experts Say

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Racine, Wis--Not surprisingly, some educators and researchers say they are concerned that the states' early-childhood-education measures have been enacted with little regard to appropriate research and without quality-control mechanisms.

At a meeting last month sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Institute of Education, and the Johnson Foundation, two dozen experts agreed that there is a "critical need" to warn lawmakers of the gap between research and policy.

"States are writing laws now and are putting nonresearched findings into policies that will affect every 4- and 5-year-old in the state," said Bettye M. Caldwell, Donaghey Distinguished Professor of Education at the Center for Child Development and Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "The role of the educational system in the lives of young children is increasing."

Added Henry Halsted, vice president of the Johnson Foundation: "We have an opportunity to do something in the area of early-childhood education before it's messed up."

'Chance To Jump Ahead'

Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the naesp, pointed in particular to the need for more information on the issue of schooling for all 4-year-olds, which he predicted would soon be a reality. And he urged educators to step in to "warn" legislators to take into account what is currently known about children's cognitive, social, and educational development.

"We have a chance to jump ahead of legislators," who may enact measures that simply transfer 1st-grade curricula "and all the things we're doing wrong there" to the schooling of 4-year-olds, Mr. Sava added.

The "warnings," he said, should take the form of information on how children learn, educational settings, teacher training, and appropriate teacher-student ratios.

"If we don't pull our knowledge together, somebody else will do it for us," he said.

"One state copies the others," added Ms. Caldwell. "Initiatives are going to spread like wildfire across the country."

Richard L. Wallace, a commissioner on the National Commission on Excellence in Education, urged conferees to support the production of a booklet that would "affirm some cautions."

Importance of Quality

And Larry J. Schweinhart, director of the Voices for Children Project of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, expressed concern that some of the preschool programs that are mandated will not be of high quality.

Programs that lack adequate evaluation mechanisms and are not quality-conscious, recent research indicates, may effect short-term gains for children but fail to promote lasting benefits.

"The warning is you have to be willing to spend enough on these programs and the programs have to be of high quality," Mr. Schweinhart, who has traveled to a number of states to provide technical assistance to policymakers under a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said in a later interview.

"If you're going to try to cut corners on that, then you're in uncharted regions and the research doesn't cover it," he added. "You're taking a much bigger risk."

Mr. Schweinhart also advised that legislators fund high-quality pilot projects in most cases before committing substantial funding to a statewide effort. "A program should not be implemented on a statewide basis unless there is evaluation research that validates it, that indicates that a large-scale program can be effective," he said.

Mr. Halsted told the participants he would return to the program committee of the Johnson Foundation next month to request that a group of experts be identified to draft guidelines for state legislatures, possibly as early as January.

He predicted that, given the foundation's "history of concern in this area," the committee would approve such a measure.--ab

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