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Elementary Principals Issue Standards For Early-Childhood Program Quality

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By Deborah L. Cohen

Citing a "growing concern for making schools more responsive to the unique needs of young children," the National Association of Elementary School Principals is urging an agenda for preschool and the early grades that includes more active learning, an end to letter grades, and limited use of formal tests and retention.

In issuing a guide last week setting 28 "quality standards" for early-childhood programs, the n.a.e.s.p. joined a growing number of organizations and experts calling for more "developmentally appropriate" instruction for young children.

The report says the expanding number of schools serving children under age 5 has heightened the need for such programs.

"Under the guise of reform" and pressure from parents, it notes, children at younger ages are being asked to sit still for long periods and being drilled with worksheets. Inappropriate tests are being used to gauge their progress, it adds, and "many wind up being labeled as remedial students even before they have completed their first year in school."

The rapid growth and development of children between the ages of 3 and 8, the report says, makes them more receptive to "direct sensory encounters with the world" than to formal academics.

Instead of 10- to 20-minute segments on each topic and worksheet drills, the report recommends planning instruction for 3- to 8-year-olds around themes and engaging them in active play at "learning centers" where they can select activities that build skills in several content areas.

It also suggests a balance of teacher- and child-initiated activities, independent and guided learning, large- and small-group instruction, and individual activities. Teachers, the report adds, should "regularly employ alternative grouping strategies," such as cooperative learning, peer-teaching, interest and skills groups, and cross-age grouping.

Groups that pull children identified as having special needs out of the classroom or segregate them for instruction should be "minimal or nonexistent," the report cautions.

'Child-Centered' Environments

In ideal early-childhood programs, the report adds, most teaching takes place in small groups or through one-on-one interaction with teachers, and students "rarely if ever work together as a total group for more than a third of the day."

For such settings to be feasible, the report says, child-adult ratios should be low. It cites research recommending ratios of no more than 15 to 1 for 6- to 8-year-olds, 20 to 2 for 3- to 5-year-olds, and 15 to 1 for at-risk children.

The report also calls for safe, comfortable, "child-centered" learning environments with equipment that appeals to children and suits their developmental levels. Room design, it says, should allow children to move about freely, reach materials easily, and interact with other children and adults.

Early-childhood teachers should have specific training and experience with 3- to 8-year-olds, the report says, and principals should have ''expertise in instructional and management strategies specially applicable to young children," as well as coursework and proficiency in understanding how young children learn.

Principals should also collaborate with day-care providers and other groups and agencies "to help assure that the needs of families are met," the report advises. And they should assure sustained communication between home and school and encourage parental involvement in schooling as well as school operations.

While stressing the need to hold programs accountable for performance, the report calls for assessment techniques that draw data from a wide range of sources rather than relying mainly on tests.

It advises, for example, dropping letter grades altogether for 3- to 8-year-olds and reporting progress through recorded observations, interviews, and student work samples.

'Pressure' for the Movement

Arguing that most standardized tests "do not reflect developmental theory and practice," the report urges that decisions on placement or promotion not be made on the basis of a single test and that retention be "rarely considered" in the early years.

It also decries the use of entry-level testing or screening to delay children from entering kindergarten and advises that admission be based solely on whether children meet state entrance-age requirements.

Groups such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the California School Readiness Task Force have issued similar statements in recent years. But the new guide, drafted by a committee of experts that included 10 principals, both supports and "puts pressure" on principals to revamp early-childhood programs, said June Million, an n.a.e.s.p. spokesman.

"Hearing it from a committee of their peers means a lot to elementary-school principals," she said, noting that many principals have been requesting such guidelines to help "convince school boards" to adopt reforms.

"Early Childhood Education and the Elementary School Principal: Standards for Quality Programs for Young Children" is available for $16.95 from the n.a.e.s.p., 1615 Duke St., Alexandria, Va. 22314. It will be distributed free to members this month.

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