Carnegie Proposes Action Plan To Ensure Children's Readiness for School
By Deborah L. Cohen
WASHINGTON-Maintaining that millions of young children living in stressful environments lack the security, support, and confidence to become successful students, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has set forth an ambitious national strategy to ensure that all children enter school well prepared.
In a 184-page report set for release this week, Ernest L. Boyer, the foundation's president, proposes a seven-point plan involving policymakers, schools, health officials, employers, parents, libraries, museums, parks and playgrounds, and community centers. A full chapter is devoted to improving television programming and advertising aimed at young children, educators, and parents.
The report--which charges that "America is losing sight of its children"--comes at a time when policymakers are turning their attention to the first of six national education goals set by the President and the governors. That goal states that by the year 2000, all children will enter school ready to learn.
A panel of prominent early-childhood experts convened by the National Association of State Boards of Education issued a separate report last week broadly defining readiness and outlining steps toward achieving that goal. (See related story, page 10.)
Mr. Boyer, a former U.S. education commissioner who recently headed an advisory panel that drafted a report on assessing the readiness goal, has authored many influential school-reform reports, including one on the high-school years and another on college-level education.
Although he began work several years ago on a report on preschool and primary education, Mr. Boyer decided after the readiness goal was adopted to split the study into two parks, the first one focusing on the preschool years. The study was funded by a $400,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Several national groups--including the National Alliance of Business, the National PTA, and the United Way--have agreed to help implement the report's recommendations.
"We've stated some goals for the nation, and we've talked a lot in the recent past about how to evaluate results," Mr. Boyer said in an interview. "Equal attention has to be given to steps we need to take to fulfill the objectives."
The "urgency" of such actions, Mr. Boyer said, was highlighted by a survey of 7,000 kindergarten teachers conducted for the study.
Their responses indicate that 35 percent, or nearly 1.5 million of U.S. children, are "not ready to participate in formal education," according to the report. Forty-two percent of the teachers also said that children are entering school less prepared than they were five years ago.
"It is unacceptable that some [children] don't know where they live, can't identify colors, or are unable to recite their full and proper name," the report says. It also quotes teachers voicing distress about the numbers of children coming to school hungry, abused, lacking attention, and with "deep emotional" and health problems.
When asked about the most serious obstacles to readiness, the largest share of teachers--51- percent cited language deficiencies.
No More 'Protective Ring'
The school-reform movement of the past decade, Mr. Boyer contends, has focused on such school-related initiatives as higher academic standards, school-based management, and parental choice, without addressing conditions that affect children's lives before they enter school.
"In our reach for excellence, we have ignored the fundamental fact that to improve the schools, a solid foundation must be laid," the report states. 'We have failed to recognize that the family may be a more imperiled institution than the school, that many of education's failures may relate to problems that precede schooling and even birth."
Meanwhile, it notes, families and communities are under increasing stress, and the "protective ring' of extended family members and neighbors that once helped to nurture children has also eroded.
To help compensate for such conditions, Mr. Boyer said, "What we've tried to stress from first to last is that the arbitrary line between school and preschool should be broken down" through health and education efforts that reach families and connect them to schools "long before the child is dropped off at kindergarten."
Mr. Boyer calls in his seven-step strategy for:
- Establishing clinics in impoverished communities to ensure basic health care for mothers and preschool children; fully funding the federal nutrition program for women, infants, and children and boosting funds for child care and community and migrant health centers; integrating federal, state, and local child-health programs; offering students of all ages a "life cycle" health course; and placing well-trained health and education teams at clinics through the National Service Corps.
- Setting up parent- education programs in every state and ensuring that every parent of a preschool-age child has access to them; publishing and distributing a national "parent-education guide" prepared cooperatively by state education departments and a "ready-to-learn library series" under the auspices of the American Library Association; and organizing a "preschool PTA"--a step agreed to by the National PTA--to engage parents in their children's education early and bridge home and school.
- Designating Head Start an entitlement to ensure that all eligible children are served and seeing that all school districts offer preschool for children not in Head Start; establishing a division in each governor's office to integrate health, human-services, child-care, and education programs for preschoolers; and convening a forum that the National Association for the Education of Young Children has agreed to sponsor on child-care standards that states would be urged to meet by 2000.
- Promoting such "family friendly" workplace policies as unpaid leave for new parents, flexible scheduling and job sharing, days off to visit schools and child-care providers, and help for parents in finding child care at or near work. The National Alliance of Business has agreed to help set up a clearinghouse for information on "responsive workplaces."
'A New Network'
- Founding a cable-television channel devoted to the educational needs of preschoolers and offering at least an hour of preschool- education programming per week on every major commercial network; ensuring that each hour of children's programming includes a public-service spot highlighting children's physical, social, or educational needs; appropriating $20 million to the National Endowment for Children's Educational Television to improve preschool programming; and sponsoring a conference for broadcast executives, sponsors, and educators to design a decadelong school- readiness strategy.
- Designing a network of outdoor and indoor parks and "street playgrounds" and setting up school-readiness programs and play spaces in every library, museum, zoo, and major shopping mall; and allowing college students to staff such programs through the Youth Services Corps.
- Urging communities, schools, day-care centers, and retirement villages to organize intergenerational programs involving the elderly in activities with young children.
The report places a premium on promoting "a warm, supportive home environment, with lots of lively social interaction" and opportunities for the language development "critical"to school success. But Mr. Boyer argues that "the time has come to move beyond the tired old 'family versus government' debate and create a new network of support."
Copies of "Ready to Learn--A Mandate for the Nation" are available for $8 each from the Princeton University Press, 3175 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, N.J. 08648.