Plato put it well: "The beginning is one half the whole.''
A wide body of research supports the fact that all later formal education is dramatically influenced by the learning experiences of the first years of life. This reality takes on added significance as the nation moves toward addressing its broader vision, as embodied in the national education goals.
President Clinton last week signed into law the cornerstone of his education-reform initiative, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The measure is significant because it represents the first time in our history we have achieved a national consensus on a vision of public education. The vision represents a national resolve and a common commitment that by 2000:
- All children in America will start school ready to learn.
- The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
- American students will be competent in core subjects.
- U.S. students will be the first in the world in science and mathematics.
- Every adult American will be literate.
- Every school in America will be safe and free of drugs.
- Parental involvement in schools will increase.
- Teacher development and professionalism will be enhanced.
The nation's governors, Congress, and President Clinton deserve high grades for moving to clearly articulate the kind of road map we must use if we are to arrive at improved quality in public education. The difficulty of the expected journey is already evident. For three consecutive years, the National Governors' Association, through the National Education Goals Panel, has issued a wake-up call regarding the lack of progress being made in demonstrating improvement in achieving any of the goals.
My concern is that we may hear the shrill sound of that wake-up call for many years to come, unless and until we address the first goal: readiness for school. The remaining goals are inextricably linked to our commitment to children in the formative and developmental years, the preschool years. And the real irony of the situation is that educators cannot be held accountable for achieving this most fundamental educational goal. Children do not pass through the schoolhouse door until the age of 5. So responsibility for Goal 1 resides with others, including parents, churches, synagogues, social and health agencies, day-care providers, and state and national leaders who shape policy for young children. The issues of poverty, homelessness, health care, nutrition, the breakdown of the family structure, latchkey children, and lack of funding for Head Start and preschool initiatives rightly belong on the doorsteps of these "others,'' who are in reality the sculptors of the childhood experience.
Entering the schoolhouse at age 5 is not, for a significant number of young children, an inoculation against the ravages of a life of deprivation. Many social, psychological, and personal needs continue to go unmet. While teachers can work hard to reshape and remold children who need their care, school is often too late for this to begin; the plaster of neglect and abuse has already hardened.
It can be argued--to use a metaphorical example--that we as a nation have spent too much time "downstream'' pulling bodies from the river of despair, frustration, and abuse, rather than shifting our energies "upstream'' to determine who is throwing the bodies in and why. Should our downstream mentality prevail, the national goals may very well be, to borrow from Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.''
As a nation in pursuit of these national goals, we must adhere to the African proverb, "It takes a whole village to educate a child.'' The time has come for the American "village'' to unify its commitment and resolve to educate young children in a holistic manner.
Examine these current realities of childhood in America:
- Over 1,000 cocaine babies are born each year.
- Eighteen percent of children between the ages of 1 and 4 have not seen a doctor for routine health care.
- A hundred thousand children a year die as a direct result of poverty.
- The number of homeless children on a given night is about 100,000--there could be as many as two million each year.
- The percentage of American households with TV sets exceeds the percentage of children who have been vaccinated against polio.
- The number of learning-disabled children has increased by 40 percent in the last two years--to two million children.
- Since 1975, children have been poorer than any age group in our society.
These statistics--and numerous others like them could be cited--do not speak well for collective America's commitment to fostering and nurturing the beauty and promise of childhood, and each child's potential for achieving a successful, healthy, productive adulthood. We seem, as a society, to have abandoned our resolve to insure the safety, health, and welfare of our most precious possession--the young who will shape and mold our tomorrow.
How do we explain our priority of spending billions on prisons, drug clinics, and anti-crime measures--all part of a "downstream'' mentality--while at the same time we pay little attention to health care, nutrition and shelter, social services, and high-quality and developmentally appropriate preschool programs for young children?
To dramatize the point, Congress is poised to enact major legislation to add 100,000 police officers to our nation's streets and to build more prisons to incarcerate those individuals who violate our laws and moral and ethical standards. The estimate for the expanded police presence and the new jailhouses is approximately $12 billion.
The reality that money is not the issue in addressing the plight of young children is brought into clearer focus when it is considered that the recent repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope exceeded a billion dollars. It appears that our priority as a nation is to expend funds to view the universe, at a time when we desperately need to look through a humanistic lens that focuses on the fiscal resources needed to assist children and their complex and varied needs.
A cogent reminder of the need to refocus our commitments and re-establish our priorities was articulated by Hubert H. Humphrey in his challenging statement: "The moral test of government is how it treats those in the dawn of life--the children. ... '' It can be legitimately argued that government is failing this moral test. This failure will negate our ability to implement the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.
The national goals and their attainment may very well represent the future of American public education and the destiny of our nation. Respecting their significance and importance will require time, energy, resources, and money. However, even if such a commitment is made, we may very well fall short of our stated goals and expectations unless we truly capture the essence of the readiness-for-school goal and its impact on the remaining goals.
A teacher once told me: "There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree: You can climb the tree, or you can sit on an acorn.'' We as a nation do not have the time and luxury to sit on acorns if we are to improve our system of public education. Rather, we need a multitude of climbers if our education goals are to be achieved. The trees that require our immediate ascent are those that will improve the lives of young children and their families. If we delay, or are not successful in this ascent, the national education goals may never advance beyond the acorn stage. The message is simple, but so very important: Start climbing now.
Gerald N. Tirozzi is a visiting professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. He is a former state superintendent of education for Connecticut.