Commentary

4-Year-Olds And the Schools

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Proposals to serve 4-year-old children in public schools are currently in vogue. States have established task forces and committees on the subject. Professional organizations have explored the issue, with the National Association of Elementary School Principals recommending, as a long-range goal, that states create full-day programs for all 4-year-olds. Highly visible policymakers--including Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City, Commissioner of Education Gordon Ambach of New York State, and Commissioner of Education Gerald N. Tirozzi of Connecticut--have helped escalate public interest in the idea.

Why is public schooling for 4-year-olds receiving so much attention?

Several developments have come together to precipitate the current concern: A social revolution is propelling more mothers of young children into the workforce, forcing a reliance on a hodgepodge of tenuous child-care arrangements; Head Start data and other evaluations of early intervention, such as the Perry Preschool Project, have shown impressive correlations between disadvantaged youngsters' participation in high-quality preschool programs and their later educational success and employability; and national education-reform reports--though not specifically prescribing earlier education--have increased interest in finding new ways of improving students' performance. Added to these factors is the continuing attention focused by the news media on a host of problems related to child care and child rearing, which spurs on the race to begin academics while children are still in diapers.

What makes the question of schooling for 4-year-olds particularly intriguing is that it calls forth some of education's basic philosophical questions: What is the appropriate scope and function of schooling? What is an appropriate balance between equity and excellence? Yet, like most of education's hard issues, the question of universal schooling for 4-year-olds will be resolved on its pragmatic, not philosophical, merits. And a review of research and practice in early-childhood education suggests that the value of such schooling for all youngsters is not as certain as many have assumed, and that its cost would most likely be prohibitive.

Because research on the benefits of early-intervention efforts has received much media attention, the widely held belief is that preschool programs will contribute positively to all children's development, at least in the short run. A thorough investigation of relevant studies reveals, however, that this is an oversimplified interpretation that does not hold true in all cases.

Most of the studies reported in the press were conducted primarily with youngsters from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. For such children, the gains have been considerable. But can comparable gains be expected from the middle-class children who make up the bulk of the public-school population? Available (but less publicized) data on middleclass preschool-age children generally indicate that highquality out-of-home care has neither adverse nor salutary effects. Some scholars even argue that out-of-home care for such children is not desirable.

Though the debate is likely to continue, two things seem clear: middle- and low-income children do not derive equal benefits from early intervention, and the greater benefits measured for low-income children cannot be generalized to the population as a whole.

Another note of caution in interpreting the research relates to the nature of the settings in which most studies have been conducted. Generally located in universities, laboratory schools, or well-funded demonstration settings, the programs studied are not typical. Compared with other preschool programs, they are usually better funded, offer more comprehensive services, are more closely monitored, serve smaller groups of children, enroll fewer children per adult, and have staffs that are especially well trained in early-childhood education. Indeed, it is in these enriched settings that gains for low-income children have been most impressive. The real question is: Can the same results be achieved in other, less favored settings?

Child-development specialists know what constitutes quality in early-childhood programs, and ensuring this quality is not inexpensive. Because close interaction between children and staff members is so critical, groups must be kept small. Though one teacher usually is sufficient for 25 5-year-old kindergarten pupils, the evidence suggests that even two teachers would be inadequate to provide high-quality care for the same number of 4-year-olds.

Moreover, most 4-year-olds who are now in programs outside the home are being cared for by adults who are not certified teachers and who often earn only the minimum wage. A public-school program, in contrast, might employ certified teachers earning at least twice that amount. Though "alternative staffing" approaches might contain salary costs while maintaining quality, there is no doubt that high-quality public schooling for all 4-year-olds would be expensive.

Turning from research to practice, what is, in fact, the current range of programs for 4-year-olds? No definitive national compendium of such programs is yet available. As part of a recent Connecticut study, ''Four-Year-Olds: Who is Responsible?," a preliminary survey was made that revealed that 19 states have demonstration efforts for 4-year-olds. Typically, these are federally funded and are targeted at specific groups, notably handicapped and low-income youngsters. Several states--including California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina--have program initiatives that extend beyond demonstration projects and involve significant funding. Though early-childhood programs are receiving increased attention from state legislators, no state provides universal public schooling for 4-year-olds.

Indeed, only a small percentage of the nation's preschool-age children are served by public schools. For example, of Connecticut's 60,000 children in preschool programs, only 5 percent receive services in public schools; the others are served by an array of public and private, profit and nonprofit agencies and programs. In many states, moreover, indirect state services--such as licensing, technical assistance, information, and referrals--are under the aegis of four or five different agencies. Consequently, discussions about expanding public-school services to include all 4-year-olds pose a threat to the livelihood of private child-care providers and raise questions of turf within state bureaucracies.

What, then, is the most practicable approach for the public schools to take?

The American system of child care and early education--while far from perfect--is complex enough without the systematic involvement of the public schools in providing direct services to all 4-year-olds. The schools, however, do have an important role to play short of providing universal preschool education. For instance, programs should be available for all low-income, handicapped, and non-English-dominant children whose parents desire such services. Schools should assume responsibility for acquainting parents with their preschool offerings and should make sure that child-care referral services are offered in their communities. Schools should publicize the benefits of early parental contact with schools and must provide opportunities for this to take place.

If schools wish to open their preschool services to 4-year-olds who are not in a special-needs category, they should consider providing full-day programs (from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) on a sliding-fee basis, thereby meeting the needs of working parents. To keep costs in line and to maintain a developmental emphasis, staffs should be composed of Child Development Associates, rather than certified elementary-school teachers.

Moving beyond individual districts, some states are offering comprehensive screening for developmental delays for preschoolers; other states should follow suit. Given the myriad agencies already involved in serving 4-year-olds, state education agencies should assume a coordinating role, ensuring that the benefits of early education are publicized and that training and technical assistance are offered to all child-care providers. States should also consider awarding incentive grants to local communities to help them create innovative approaches to serving 4-year-olds and their families.

Most important, the educational establishment must place its imprimatur on education, not schooling, for 4-year-olds. Policymakers must recognize that no single approach, type of service, or delivery system--public or private--can meet the diverse needs of all children and families. Rather, the schools must be committed to supporting a range of services that preserves the right of choice for parents and the right of childhood for children.

Vol. 5, Issue 15, Page 24

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