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Task Force Offers Broad Vision of School Readiness

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By Deborah L. Cohen

WASHINGTON--The extent to which children enter school ready to learn hinges on a far more complex set of factors than their academic knowledge, the quality of early-childhood programs, and the efforts of individual parents, according to a report issued last week by a panel of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

The National School Readiness Task Force's report, released at a news conference here, sketches a broad vision of school readiness that encompasses not only children's innate capacities but their physical health, self-confidence, and social competence.

It also places responsibility for readiness on a wide range of players-including parents, communities, and policymakers--and explores how the "expectations and capacities of elementary schools" figure into the readiness equation.

The panel, convened by NEWSBOY last January, was chaired by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and composed of 18 experts in early-childhood development and education.

Its mission was to develop a blueprint for achieving the first of six national education goals adopted last year by the President and the nation's governors, which states that all children will enter school ready to learn by the year 2000.

'Pulling Together'

The report offers recommendations on how to deploy local, state, and federal resources; the business sector; and voluntary agencies to create "caring communities" that can help meet the readiness goal.

The report "puts the nation on notice that readiness is not just the responsibility of schools," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior associate with the Yale University Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy and a member of the task force. "If we're going to reach this readiness goal, communities, families, and institutions need to pull together."

"It makes more people feel they ought to be a part of the solution," said Barbara Kamara, the executive director of early-childhood development for the department of human services in the District of Columbia.

Panelists also noted that the group's definition, unlike previous conceptions of readiness, does not place the onus of readiness solely on the child.

The report "redefines readiness to not simply be an attribute of a child but an attribute of a child's interaction with his or her school and community," said Heather Weiss, the director of the Harvard University Family Research Project.

Agreed Samuel J. Meisels, a professor of education at the University of Michigan: "Too often the goal statements have been written so the issue seems to be fixing something in the students. Here we are saying that, in order to have better outcomes for young children, we have to have better environments for them to grow in and better situations for their families."

Self-Esteem Critical

In an influential 1988 report-"Right from the Start"--an earlier Newsboy task force recommended ungraded early-childhood units in elementary schools to better serve children ages 4 to 8 and community partnerships to bolster services for children and parents.

The new report addresses "the prenatal period on up through the early years, with more of a focus on the community as the arena for initiatives to mobilize all the different programs and informal supports and private-sector resources," said Tom Shultz, NEWSBOY's staff director for the task force and a co-author of the report.

Such an approach is necessary, Governor Clinton said at the news conference, because "too many children are showing up at school almost permanently limited" by a lack of adequate support services.

Barriers to school readiness cited in the report include increased stress on families, insufficient services and fragmented service planning, inadequate child-care standards, and inappropriate teaching and assessment practices.

The report notes that many children are growing up in families that cannot afford adequate housing or health care; that only 40 percent of preschool-age children with families earning less than $30,000 are enrolled in preschool; and that 25 percent of all 8-year-olds were at least a grade behind their peers in 1989.

In addition, it states, each year more than 400,000 young children are exposed to such health risks as low birthweight, prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs, lead poisoning, malnutrition, and abuse. Such risks, the report notes, can contribute to physical and emotional handicaps, difficulty concentrating, and frequent school absences, all of which impede learning.

Low wages and high staff turnover in urban child-care centers and inadequate child-care regulations are also jeopardizing children's school readiness, the report warns.

It also cites interviews with more than 100 Head Start, child- care, and public-school teachers who stressed that self-esteem plays a more critical role in fostering learning than "being able to recite the alphabet [and] recognize shapes, numbers, and colors."

While the report calls on federal, state, and local governments to expand early-childhood and family services and funding, most of its recommendations center on communities and schools.

Readying Schools for Children

It outlines several steps to help communities support families by providing integrated, comprehensive services; high-quality early-childhood programs; "family focused'' policies that engage parents; and well-trained and adequately paid early-childhood staffs.

As in "Right from the Start," the new report promotes "developmentally appropriate," hands-on learning and performance- based assessments that can accommodate children of diverse backgrounds and abilities, and it frowns on grouping and testing policies that segregate or stigmatize children.

Other changes recommended to make public schools "ready" for young children include strong parent-involvement programs and support networks, intensive staff development; and programs to address young children's nonacademic needs.

"Schools are going to have to reform not only how they function with relationship to young children and families, but how they think about their role," Ms. Kagan said.

In that regard, Mr. Shultz noted, "hopefully NEWSBOY is in a position to have some influence."

Copies of "Caring Communities: Supporting Young Children and Families" are available for $10 each from NEWSBOY, Attention: Publications, 1012 Cameron Street, Alexandria, Va. 22314.

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