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Gesell Institute Is Facing Uncertain Future In Wake of Budget Woes, Testing Questions

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By Deborah L. Cohen

One of the venerable names in the child-development field is facing an uncertain future in the wake of steep financial losses and controversies surrounding the methods it pioneered for assessing school "readiness."

The Gesell Institute of Human Development, which for decades has offered a comprehensive training and assessment program stressing the physical, social, and emotional development of the child, has pared back its operations to a core group of services, according to officials.

In the past year and a half, the institute has eliminated most of its clinical services and cut its full-time professional staff from about 47 to 9, with five of those remaining expected to depart by early next year.

Gesell also has eliminated its holistic-medicine and nutrition departments and is phasing out its vision and psychological services.

The institute had a $422,000 deficit for the 1988 fiscal year, and the two buildings that house its New Haven, Conn., headquarters are up for sale.

In July, the institute's board voted to narrow its focus to the work conducted by consultants who train teachers and work with schools in implementing the Gesell philosophy. Some 30 "lecture staff" will continue to perform that role as consultants.

Laura Freebairn-Smith, the institute's manager and acting director, called the changes a "restructuring" and said that proceeds from the sale of the buildings would be put, after debts are paid, into an endowment to carry on the institute's work.

"We want to make it clear to everyone in the field that we are here to stay," she said.

Although Ms. Freebairn-Smith is herself leaving the institute in January--to be replaced by a "team of managers" from among the remaining staff--she pointed to September fiscal reports showing the core operation turning a profit as proof that "the new configuration is working."

Robert Wood, director of the Northeast Foundation for Children and a member of Gesell's lecture staff, said that having "pared back to the point where its work in the field is its primary focus, the institute has a tremendous opportunity to rebuild itself in a positive direction."

Others, however, paint a more uncertain picture of the institute's prospects, and there is speculation that it may not live out the year.

"The institute has very, very severe problems, and it is unclear exactly what the future holds," said G. Harold Welch Jr., secretary-treasurer of Gesell's board of trustees and a board member for more than a decade.

Outside observers and former staff members say the institute's problems stem, in part, from a resistance to altering kindergarten testing and placement practices that have come under increasing criticism.

"Basically, this is a case of an organization failing to update its approach and products despite all kinds of warnings and pressures," said Robert Lichtenstein, who was hired as research director in 1987 and resigned in 1988.

While acknowledging that the institute has been too slow to react to the current backlash against readiness testing, its backers stand by the Gesell methods, which they say have been employed successfully by large numbers of schools.

The institute, according to Mr. Wood, has "a tremendously large following in the trenches."

"I don't think it is widely understood," he said, "how many teachers and parents out there in school districts have really leaned on the Gesell philosophy."

The institute's financial woes are attributed by officials to factors ranging from too rapid growth to the high cost of its medical department and overhead. But they acknowledge that criticism of the testing and placement practices linked to the Gesell philosophy has taken its toll.

The institute's problems "certainly are related to the whole debate on whether testing is appropriate for kindergarten-age children," said Susan L. Sweitzer, director of education and training.

Widely Used Test

The modern-day Gesell Institute was launched in 1950 by followers of Dr. Arnold Gesell, a psychologist and physician who believed many pupils are set on a course of failure in the early grades simply because they are not ready to learn.

His research led him to conclude that children's developmental maturity, not their chronological age, should govern how and when they learn.

Over a 40-year period beginning in 1911, Dr. Gesell and his staff at Yale University determined norms of behavior for children at various developmental stages and developed tests for assessing their developmental age based on physical, social, and emotional maturity. Tests adapted from Dr. Gesell's work are widely used in assessing children's readiness for school.

Gesell readiness tests are individually administered by examiners who assess children's developmental progress as they complete various tasks: building with blocks, answering questions, naming animals, copying shapes, and filling in a stick-figure drawing of an "incomplete man."

The most popular version of the test takes about 20 minutes.

Institute officials estimate that from 15 percent to 18 percent of school districts around the country use Gesell assessments in some fashion.

Debate Over 'Gift of Time'

The institute has increasingly promoted the use of its assessments as a way to give developmentally immature children what the institute calls the "gift of time"--a year between kindergarten or 1st grade in transitional classes that offer more hands-on and less academically rigorous instruction.

That approach has come under fire in recent years from early-childhood experts, however, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The group's main concern, said Susan Bredekamp, its director of professional development, is that "decisions have been made about children on the basis of a simple test score--which is in itself a violation of appropriate professional practice." Compounding that concern, she said, are questions about the tests' reliability.

Several reviews published between 1985 and 1989, said Lorrie A. Shepard, a University of Colorado professor of education, showed that Gesell tests "do not meet the technical standards for reliability and validity of the American Psychological Association." Ms. Shepard has published studies casting doubt on the benefits of extra-year programs.

In the journal Young Children, the University of Michigan professor of education Samuel J. Meisels wrote two years ago that Gesell readiness tests "are based on an outmoded theory of child development, lack reliability and validity, and use a concept of developmental age that has never been empirically verified."

On the basis of such tests, he said, "children who need special services are being overlooked; some children who are not at risk are being identified as being at risk; parents are becoming alarmed, teachers and administrators upset, and resources squandered."

Several professional groups have issued position statements in recent years opposing readiness testing and extra-year programs. They have warned that such practices may inadvertently cast children as failures or segregate them along socioeconomic or racial and ethnic lines.

The critics argue that, rather than creating separate classrooms for pupils of different developmental levels, schools should revamp regular classrooms to accommodate children of all abilities.

But Wheaton Griffin, a former Gesell director of developmental and psychological services who left the institute to found the Griffin Center for Human Development, said that even those who "don't like the statistical underpinnings of the test acknowledge that we know children better through it."

"The chief difference of opinion," said Mr. Griffin, whose center helps schools revamp their early-grades curricula, "is whether, once you know a child, should you place him in a separate class if he's younger, or should you make a class appropriate for the full range of children?"

"If there are sufficient numbers of children who are not ready for the regular curriculum to constitute a whole class, that means the problem is with the curriculum," Ms. Bredekamp of the naeyc said.

Critics of the Gesell approach also argue that the test's norms were not derived from a nationally representative or racially balanced sample of children and have not been revised since the 1970's.

'More Vigilant' on Warnings

Gesell advocates point to two recent studies--one submitted for publication by an institute psychologist, Richard Walker, and another completed by Mr. Lichtenstein after he left Gesell--that, they say, show the test has sufficient validity to be valuable and is not discriminatory. Both studies, however, warn against using it as the sole factor in placement decisions.

Mr. Walker's study showed Gesell measures have "moderate reliability and substantial predictive power." But he noted that experienced judges rescoring initial sample tests tended to rate normative children as below average, and that raters sometimes differ in their recommendations on developmental level.

Gesell followers maintain that the assessment can offer useful information to guide such decisions if more than one reviewer rates the test and if other sources of information, such as teacher and parent observations, are weighed.

The tests "were never intended to make the definitive statement," said Ms. Sweitzer.

In recent months, staff members have been "more vigilant," Mr. Wood said, about issuing statements and warning schools of inappropriate test uses. They have stressed the institute's stance that parents should have the final say in placement decisions.

"The institute never in a proactive way recommended a specific use of the test," Mr. Wood said. "But it has more recently seen the need to say 'here's how not to use the test."'

One area where the critics "have been really helpful to us," said Ms. Sweitzer, is in pointing out that some districts "have chosen to reserve that decisionmaking right to the school."

"We state categorically that we oppose that practice," she said. If schools make readiness decisions based on Gesell tests without giving parents final approval, "they do so without our express consent, written or otherwise."

While some parents say their children have benefited from readiness policies, others cite harmful effects. A recent Associated Press report contrasted the views of parents who saw such policies as either the ''gift of time" or "the theft of a year."

In a case cited by the n.a.e.y.c., New York parents have won the right to take their children out of a transitional kindergarten. And last May, several parents appeared on the television show "Donahue" to protest a school's use of the Gesell to place pupils in a developmental kindergarten without their consent.

Gesell's efforts to urge caution in using the test have not been "aggressive enough to correct the damage done over the last 10 years," said Ms. Shepard. "I get calls every week from parents who are being intimidated and pressured by school districts."

Impetus for Change?

Gesell backers continue, however, to defend the use of transitional kindergartens in schools that lack developmentally appropriate curricula in their regular programs.

"Until we get to a point where these practices are extended up to the early grades, there have to be some options," said Ms. Sweitzer.

Critics who denounce transitional programs are not "in the real world of accountability and high expectations," said Patricia H. Eyster, director of the primary-education program for the Brevard County, Fla., schools. Brevard uses Gesell results, along with other instruments and input from teachers and parents, to place pupils in transitional kindergarten and 1st-grade programs.

"There definitely needs to be some change, but before these great changes take place, there are certain children who suffer" without an alternative, Ms. Eyster said.

"Even if you have the best teachers and the best curriculum, step-by-step programs don't meet the developmental needs" of all pupils, said Jan Keirns, Gesell's senior educational consultant.

While some critics say transition programs perpetuate the "lockstep'' approach used in regular classrooms, Gesell followers argue that they can be an impetus for change.

"Providing settings that are really in keeping with children's natural abilities, and having them adjacent to very rigid 1st grades, has provided some of the impetus for changing kindergartens and 1st grades," Ms. Sweitzer contended.

Louise Bates-Ames, a co-founder of the institute who has authored several books on child development, maintains that the backlash against Gesell is part of a broader trend against standardized testing.

Part of that movement, she said, stems from civil-rights advocates' concern that tests may be used to "show some people are better or different from one another"--and from special-education mandates that have created a scenario in which "if your child has something, the school has to pay to get it fixed."

The criticism also stems, she said, from the notion that "you can make a child into anything through individual teaching and proper curriculum."

The critics are "returning to a place in history we've already been, which is that no child should be retained," Mr. Wood said. "Our study of child development shows us that there are developmental differences between children, and some need extra time."

Ms. Bredekamp of the n.a.e.y.c. has a different perspective. "We know there are developmental differences," she said. "But we think the best solution is to lower class size for all children and train teachers in developmentally appropriate techniques."

Those who insist on a transitional approach, she added, are "overstating the difficulty of changing."

For example, she said, instead of creating a separate transition class, schools could move toward more individualized instruction by dividing one larger class into two smaller heterogeneous classes.

'Injudicious Spending'

But while backlash to use of the Gesell assessments may have reduced the demand for institute workshops and training programs, officials stress that several other factors have fueled the institute's fiscal decline.

"It is real easy for it to look in the field as if the sole reason for the problems of the institute is controversy," said Mr. Wood. The "overriding issue," he said, is that the institute was not equipped to handle the rapid growth of the Gesell movement.

When enrollment in Gesell workshops reached its peak in the early to mid-1980's, according to Ms. Freebairn-Smith, the institute "increased its staff too quickly." Changes in the market, coupled with the high cost of a medical department that was steadily losing money, were more than the institute could withstand.

Officials also acknowledge that they were too slow to set in motion new research and to renorm the test.

Although a 1987 Gesell press release announced a "major new study" to revise, renorm, and validate its assessment, officials say a combination of financial and personnel problems delayed that work.

Mr. Lichtenstein, the former research director, maintains that he left partly because he was not assured of sufficient support to "conduct research that would be fair, objective, and rigorous and to help the institute interpret the implications of the research findings."

Besides "injudicious spending," said Mr. Welch of the Gesell board, "there was an unwarranted delay in the renorming of the Gesell test--and therefore a lack of ability to refute some of the criticisms."

Some observers also cite a resistance to changing course. The long-time institute employees, Mr. Griffin said, represent a "group of people very sincere in their desire to help children," but "wedded to a one-way approach."

"Had they modulated their position, they could still be a very productive and very positive leader," he said.

'Bickering' on Minor Points

Whether or not the institute survives, Gesell followers say they are hopeful of reaching a common ground with their critics.

"One of the things that makes me saddest is to see people like Gesell and the n.a.e.y.c. fighting each other, when there's a much bigger enemy out there," said Mr. Wood. "If we could concentrate on areas of agreement in child development, there would be more of a chance that we could reform American education than if we are bickering around the minor points."

Even those who have questioned the institute's methods acknowledge its contributions.

"The work of Gesell has provided the foundation of knowledge about child development that has guided practice in the field for decades," Ms. Bredekamp said. "Establishing concepts about child development through the systematic observation of children has made an enormously valuable contribution to our knowledge base about children, both for practitioners and parents."

Differences between the groups, she added, are "a matter of strategy, rather than basic goals."

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