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Spotlight on Early Years: A Rare 'Opportunity'

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Clinton, Mich.--Participants at an early-childhood-education conference here agreed that increased attention on the problems of young children by educational, political, and business leaders makes the timing opportune for major advances in child care.

But education and social-services policymakers at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation's sixth annual conference last month acknowledged that the chance could be missed without better coordination between agencies on the structure, content, and funding of such services.

"We have an opportunity to make some fundamental changes, but that opportunity is very fleeting," said Patrick Babcock, director of the Michigan department of social services. "Once we move out of that position, we will have lost the opportunity to have an impact on public policy."

Mr. Babcock noted that Presidential candidates have placed education high on their agendas and that the preschool movement has gained momentum with the backing of business leaders. For example, the recent report by the Committee for Economic Development, whose trustees include many corporate leaders, urged a massive expansion of preschool programs to stem the failure rate of disadvantaged students. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

The drive for high-quality early-childhood care, which has accelerated as increasing numbers of mothers enter the workforce, "has become part of the whole [economic] competitiveness rap," said Amy Tyler-Wilkins, a program associate in the child-care division of the Children's Defense Fund.

Although early-childhood programs traditionally have been2p4aimed at disadvantaged preschoolers, "middle-class interests have been very powerful" in broadening their constituency, said Vito Perrone, vice president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Mark Souder, Republican staff director for the House Select Commitee on Children, Youth, and Families, said child care could be a "top issue" in 1988 "if we aren't at war and the economy's good."

Interagency Competition Cited

Although several states have adopted or are considering new early-childhood legislation, participants said poor interagency collaboration has sparked turf battles, ideological disputes, and a competition for resources.

"So much is going on ... and our connecting points are not very good," said Mr. Perrone. "Coordination is going to be critical if we're really going to make a difference."

Such comments support the findings of a forthcoming national study by researchers at the Bank Street College of Education and Wellesley College, which cites growing activism--but inefficiency--in states' efforts to fund early-childhood education programs. (See Education Week, Oct. 14, 1987.)

"Part of the excitement" about situating early-childhood programs in the public schools "was because we assumed that meant full-day programs," said Anne Mitchell, co-director of the Public School Early Childhood Study, who addressed the conference. The failure to link education and day-care efforts to provide more comprehensive benefits to children and parents can be attributed to the "intransigence of bureaucracies in putting funding streams together," she said.

Signs of Change

Although few states now coordi8nate funding across agencies to link preschool and day care, conference participants said education and social-services departments are beginning to seek more linkages.

Some examples they cited include:

A legislative commission in North Carolina that is seeking a consensus between state agencies on the approach to and administration of a proposed early-childhood program.

An interagency child care council established in Maryland to set uniform standards for day-care regulation and licensing.

A feature of Washington State's early-childhood legislation that requires the transfer of medical records from day-care to public-school facilities and promotes exchanges between their personnel.

Policymakers at the meeting noted, however, that cooperation has been hampered by disputes over where early-childhood programs should be housed and what their content should be.

While some maintained that public schools have not moved quickly enough to accommodate young children, Joyce M. Buckner, director of elementary education for the Omaha, Neb., public schools, said many schools lack the necessary funds and support.

"I feel like we're scratching little pieces together," she said. "We don't even have enough room for our kids."

Equity and Content Issues

Barbara Bowman, director of graduate studies at Chicago's Erikson Institute, also warned that placing early-childhood programs in inadequately funded urban public schools could foster inequities in services for minority children. That concern is a "potent issue for black families," she said.

Others questioned the wisdom of imposing public schools' academic structure and pressures on 3- and 4-year-olds.

"I think the pressures will be very high" to stress skills mastery in public-school programs for young children, said Mr. Perrone, who advocated restructuring schools to adopt a comprehensive developmental program for 3- to 9-year-olds.

Ms. Buckner noted, however, that administrators who promote such models often "face an uphill battle" with school boards and parents who want children prepared to read and write at early ages.

Federal and private-sector researchers at the High/Scope conference cited data highlighting an increased need for child care and demonstrating the public's willingness to support such programs through tax dollars. But one researcher urged caution in expansion efforts, which he contended could be hazardous to family life.

Allan Carlson, director of the Rockford, Ill., Institute's center on the family in America, pointed to studies demonstrating social maladjustment, insecure attachments to parents, aggressive behavior, and social "withdrawal" of young children in day care.

Allison-Clarke Stewart, professor of social ecology at the University of California at Irvine, countered that other studies demonstrate that children in day care achieve intellectual gains and develop such positive social behaviors as greater self-confidence, assertiveness, and less adherence to sex-stereotyped roles.

The three-day invitational conference, "Shaping the Future for Early Childhood Programs," drew about 100 participants, including representatives of state education and human-services departments and private foundations as well as Minnesota's education commissioner, the First Lady of Colorado, and Congressional and governors' aides.

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