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N.A.E.Y.C. Working To Enhance Its Influence

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When Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts drafted a bill last year to fund preschool programs for disadvantaged 4-year-olds, the National Association for the Education of Young Children was one of the groups his staff consulted.

Standards included in his "Smart Start" proposal were "based very much" on the n.a.e.y.c.'s guidelines for high-quality preschool programs, said Shirley S. Sagawa, an aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which Mr. Kennedy chairs.

"They were one of the most important sources we had," she added. "I never felt in dealing with them that we were getting anything other than a good developmental perspective for children. They didn't have a secret agenda. That's very refreshing."

Observers say the n.a.e.y.c.'s diverse membership--and its adeptness at formulating policies backed by research on how children develop and learn--has gained the group respect and increasing influence.

Organized by a handful of nursery-school educators in 1929, the n.a.e.y.c.--then called the National Association for Nursery Education--now boasts 62,000 members and a $4.1-million budget. Attendance at its annual conference has risen steadily, topping 20,000 in each of the last two years.

N.a.e.y.c. publications on subjects ranging from teacher training to standardized tests have attracted widespread attention in the early-childhood field.

The group counts among its proudest accomplishments a 1987 position statement on "developmentally appropriate practice" in early-childhood programs. The guidelines--which advocate the promotion of learning and self-esteem through experience and play rather than formal schooling--have been enthusiastically supported by early-childhood educators and cited by legislators and policymakers.

The n.a.e.y.c. this year has filled requests for about 500,000 copies of brochures on programs for 4- and 5-year-olds and primary-grade students, as well as 77,000 copies of a book on programs for children from birth to age 8.

The group's members have become "the spokespeople for the nation on early childhood," said Docia E. Zavitkovsky, an child-development consultant who is a past president of the organization.

"They don't have as high a profile among the 'lay community' as some other groups," Ms. Sagawa said. "But they have the legitimacy of numbers and the legitimacy of a very serious and perhaps much less political way of looking at young children."

Aiming for More Active Role

At the group's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., this month, its board approved plans to establish a new public-affairs office, partly to help it play a more "proactive role in the legislative process," said Ellen Galinsky, the current president. The organization is also planning symposia to help step up local efforts to promote state and federal legislation.

Besides its role in the Smart Start bill, the group was part of a broad coalition that supported the "act for better child care services" in the last Congress. Neither bill reached a final vote, although the a.b.c. cleared Congressional education panels.

The organization's board also approved plans for a joint project--with the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education--to draft a model early-childhood curriculum.

To address the issue of low wages and high turnover among child-care workers, the group set plans to conduct salary surveys and gather data on the relationship between the quality and affordability of care and the compensation of workers.

The conference also touched on such topics as the testing of young children, the effects of television violence, and support for day-care pro8viders in private homes.

In Origins, a Modernity

According to a report chronicling its history, the group was formed to offer a forum for professionals in the growing nursery-school movement of the 1920's.

Interest in experimental programs for this "new unit at the foot of the educational ladder" according to one founding member, arose from "recent knowledge about potential learning abilities of young children and from the development of techniques of conditioning behavior, combined with population shifts toward cities."

Participants at the 1929 conference that launched the original group mirrored the diversity of the n.a.e.y.c.'s current membership. They included nursery-school teachers and directors, home economists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, college faculty, students, and play-group directors.

Topics on the conference agenda were a precursor to many of the themes addressed here this month. Among them:

"How can nursery-school children be trained to adjust to the world as it may be rather than to the world as it is?"

"How can one define the province of parents and specialists in the education of our children?"

"What is meant by integrating the physical, mental, and social experiences of the child?"

"Is the time really ripe for the encouragement of nursery units in public education, or should an attempt be made to maintain them only in experimental situations?"

Membership in the organization did not exceed the 1,000 mark for nearly three decades, as the group struggled to define its purpose amid the changing federal child-care policies of the Depression and pre- and post-World War II periods. Membership dwindled to less than 100 at one point, but the group resisted efforts to merge with other organizations.

Activity in the early-childhoodel15lfield and membership shifts, however, catapulted its rolls to nearly 18,000 by 1970.

Marilyn M. Smith, the current director, attributes the growth to the establishment of the federal Head Start program in 1965 and the development of an "affiliate" structure within the n.a.e.y.c. The system has fueled the formation of more than 300 city and state groups offering local leadership and support for the national group.

In 1966, the organization made a commitment to expand its services and staff and changed its name to the n.a.e.y.c., saying it "better designated the interests of association members."

'Unswerving in Its Commitment'

The n.a.e.y.c.'s constituency has since expanded, ranging from child-development experts and public-school personnel to advocacy groups and for- and nonprofit day-center operators. But Ms. Smith maintained that "its core purpose has never changed: When children are in group programs outside the family and home, those programs must be of high quality."

"This organization has never stood for custodial care or care being separated from education," she said.

"For 60 years, n.a.e.y.c. has been pretty unswerving in its commitment to kids and quality," added Ms. Galinsky.

The group's mission has gathered momentum, she said, as business executives, educators, and policymakers have "come to recognize that we can't throw away one of every four kids who doesn't graduate from high school."

"We have said for many years that the future of the world is in small hands, but no one else was saying it," Ms. Galinsky said. "We now have the power structure focusing on young children."

She acknowledged, however, that the group faces several obstacles, including a society "more in tune with rescuing kids than preventing mis4haps in the first place," competitive attitudes among parents, "hostilities" among children's groups, and a lack of adequate state and federal funds.

Impact on Schools

Observers note that the developmental principles espoused by the n.a.e.y.c. have been slow to filter into the public schools--particularly as the reform movement's push toward "accountability" drives curricula toward rote learning and standardized tests.

But its "developmentally appropriate" philosophy is winding its way into state and national policy statements, Ms. Galinsky said.

"You see it in report after report after report," she said. A task force on early-childhood services that she recently chaired for Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, for example, has backed principles supported by the n.a.e.y.c.--despite a "knock-down, drag-out fight" among members about how children learn best, according to Ms. Galinsky.

Another example of the organization's effect on state action is the work of a California school-readiness task force, which has called for revamping the state's early-childhood classrooms. To promote the plan, the state education department plans to distribute n.a.e.y.c. brochures to all principals, said Ada J. Hand, a child-development consultant.

"It was very helpful that their position statement was out when we needed it," she said.

Chalmer Moore Jr., president of the state early-childhood specialists' group and an educational consultant to the Illinois board of education, said his board also has recommended the n.a.e.y.c.'s guidelines to school districts with preschool programs.

And the group has been further encouraged by a recent report of the National Association of State Boards of Education calling for special school units for 4- to 8-year-olds.

"With more and more schools accepting young children beginning at age 4," said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, his organization also has turned to n.a.e.y.c. materials to help educate principals.

"I don't think the n.a.e.y.c. has the influence of the National Education Association, or even the n.a.e.s.p.," Mr. Sava said, "but I think, together, we can move a great deal of their hard work into the public schools."

Accreditation, Publication

While the group has always taken positions, issued publications, and and held conferences, it has expanded its scope in recent years.

For example, in 1985 it defined criteria for high-quality early-childhood programs and set up a voluntary rating system to accredit those that meet specified standards of self-study, internal evaluation, and review by independent experts.

About 670 programs have been accredited through the program, and more than 2,000 are currently enrolled in the self-study process.

"The kinds of improvements that programs make while they are going through self-study are just as important as the feeling of pride and esteem that comes to the center," Ms. Smith said.

The organization's publication operations also have been growing. In addition to its Young Children journal and research reports, it joined with the eric Clearinghouse and a private publishing company several years ago to produce a research quarterly focused on early-childhood issues.

"We're trying to influence policy so decisions are based on what children need and not on the needs of special-interest groups or adults,'' said Ms. Smith.

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