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Some Reforms Counterproductive for Young, Group Says

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A panel of educators, child-development experts, and policymakers has set forth a "new vision" for early-childhood education that would create special schools or separate units within schools for 4- to 8-year-olds.

The group also says schools should form partnerships with other early-childhood programs and community agencies to coordinate services for children and their parents.

The National Association of State Boards of Education, which convened the early-childhood-education task force a year ago, endorsed the panel's recommendations at its annual conference in Chicago last week.

The 25-member panel included superintendents, state legislators, child-development experts, and leaders of human-services programs.

Its report, "Right From the Start," argues that programs for young children need to be "restructured" because schools have been inattentive to their developmental needs.

The group also charges that education-reform policies have spawned practices that are "inappropriate" for young children, such as an overreliance on formal academic drills, worksheets, and standardized tests.

"We have adopted a set of policies which, while perhaps appropriate for improving high school, may be less helpful for elementary schools and very young children," says the report. "It may well be the case that making high-school students work harder is an appropriate formulation. It is not clear that lack of effort is the problem for kindergarten students."

Tailoring separate programs--headed by early-childhood specialists--for young children with "similar developmental characteristics" would be a dramatic advance in the field, said Barbara Bowman, a panel member and director of graduate studies at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

"The notion that we can handle children from age 5 to adolescence [in one setting] and meet the needs of all the children is developmental hogwash," she said. "This would give young children a little more time and less pressure to grow."

Such programs, Ms. Bowman said, also would offer more opportunities to involve parents than do traditional school settings. She added that linkages with social-service and community agencies would help address the external sources of stress that affect families and hinder children's school success.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has awarded nasbe a $375,000 grant to pilot the panel's proposals in several states.

'Double-Edged Message'

The report notes that national movements are under way to reform education and improve the delivery of services to young children, but it says "the two movements have largely separate origins and leadership.''

It also suggests that some school reforms--such as "generic" accountability standards and more teacher specialization--may be counterproductive in the early grades.

Teachers in those grades, the pan4el notes, "report an increasing use of standardized tests, worksheets and workbooks, ability grouping, retention, and other practices that focus on academic skills too early and in inappropriate ways."

The report argues that a "legitimate concern about the link between our economic future and the quality of schooling" has fostered a competitive mentality that places undue pressure on young children.

"If education is seen as a contest that pits children against their peers, or a race against our foreign competitors, we risk teaching very young children the wrong academic tasks in an inappropriate fashion."

The panel maintains that current instructional approaches in the early grades send a "double-edged message" by expecting too much in terms of academic requirements but too little in terms of developing creativity and thinking skills.

Such approaches "seem to exemplify an obsession with producing short-term, trivial results rather than developing long-term intellectual and social capacity," the report says.

The nasbe task force says it based its recommendations on a "consensus of professional opinion and research" on what characterizes high-quality early-childhood programs.

Model Approaches Cited

Such programs, the report says, respond to the learning patterns of children within a certain age range; involve parents; and address health, nutrition, child-care, and emotional needs as well as language and cognitive development.

Early-childhood curricula should, the panel suggests, emphasize language development, problem solving, individual and group play, self-control and discipline, sustained interest in activities, attention to adults and peers, intrinsic motivation, and fine and gross motor skills and coordination.

The group endorses "developmentally appropriate" practices outlined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children that promote learning through exploration and play.

The task force offers three different models for providing services for 4- to 8-year-olds.

The first would establish separate schools for that age group staffed by principals, teachers, and community groups committed to developmental principles.

The second would designate early-childhood directors with expertise in the field to head programs in existing schools, and would grant them "substantial authority to develop and support teachers."

A third model would employ a "staffing team" headed by one or more lead teachers.

The panel says schools should hire teachers and early-childhood administrators with appropriate training, provide inservice training, and ensure that teachers in the programs receive wages and benefits comparable to those of other teachers.

Citing the benefits of comprehensive early-childhood programs such as Head Start, the task force says schools should be an "ombudsman" for children and families, and should collaborate with other agencies to offer health and counseling services. It also encourages collaborative efforts to provide prenatal care, parent education, and child care.

One member of the nasbe task force, Lee Etta Powell, superintendent of the Cincinnati public schools, said the panel could have provided more guidance on how public and private providers can collaborate to make better use of space within and outside schools.

She said she also would have favored recommending that all states adopt special certification requirements for early-childhood teachers.

Making developmental principles "pervasive in the early years," noted Richard A. Boyd, Mississippi's state superintendent and a member of the task force, would help address the concern that many principals and teachers "don't really understand basic concepts of what good early- childhood education is."

"The big thing we were trying to do was to send a message that 1st grade is not like 8th grade," he said. "There really are some differences in the cognitive styles" of young children.

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