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Carnegie Corp. Presses Early-Years Policies

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Washington

Calling the birth-to-3 age span the most critical period in a child's development but the most neglected by policymakers, an expert panel is proposing a broad blueprint for improvements in education, child and health care, and community services to support young children and their families.

In a report scheduled for release this week, a Carnegie Corporation of New York task force highlights compelling research evidence on the importance of the first three years of life.

A "remarkable'' consensus is emerging on what it takes to spur healthy development, the 30-member panel says, while warning that a pattern of social neglect has dimmed the prospects of a "staggering number'' of children.

"The crucially formative years of early childhood have become a time of peril and loss for millions of children and their families,'' writes David A. Hamburg, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, in the foreword to the report.

Among the group's recommendations to spur "responsible parenthood'' are expanding family-planning services--including birth control and, in some cases, access to abortion and adoption services--and starting parenthood education in elementary school.

The report also calls on educators to incorporate services for the youngest children in "plans for schools of the 21st century'' and urges secondary schools and community colleges to provide training and technical aid to child-care providers.

The panel also outlines steps to improve the quality of child care, child health and safety, and social services, and urges all levels of government, private and public groups, businesses, and parents to join in implementing them.

The report signals an increasing awareness "that what goes on in the first three years of life is very important to school readiness,'' noted Kathryn Taaffe Young, the director of studies for the Carnegie task force and the report's primary author.

"We need a systematic approach,'' Ms. Young emphasized.

While urging a 10-year investment in young children, the panel did not offer a cost estimate.

"There is no way we can credibly say what this will cost because there is no one institution responsible for these children,'' Ms. Young said. "It will vary from community to community depending on what's already in place.''

Policy Paradox

The document, which Ms. Young described as the first major national report to address the needs of infants and toddlers, is being released at a meeting here that is expected to feature an address by Hillary Rodham Clinton and talks by Cabinet members, policymakers, child-development experts, and business leaders.

Dr. Julius B. Richmond, a professor of health policy at Harvard University and the first director of Head Start, said the group hopes to spur community-based responses that integrate health, education, and social policy. Dr. Richmond and Eleanor E. Maccoby, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, took over as co-chairmen of the task force last year after the original chairman, Richard W. Riley, became the Secretary of Education.

"The most important part of the report is that it brings together what we know about the needs of the very young child and shows evidence not only for supporting those needs, but doing so successfully,'' said Lisbeth Schorr, a panel member who is the director of the Harvard University Project on Effective Services.

The report points to data showing that early brain development is far more rapid, extensive, and vulnerable to environmental influences than once thought. It also cites evidence that "protective factors,'' including stable communities and dependable care-givers, can help buffer negative early experiences.

At the same time, the report points to signs of a "quiet crisis'' for children under 3, including poor prenatal, health, and child care; rising child poverty; and increasing abuse, neglect, violence, and accidental injury to young children.

It also details how rising rates of teenage pregnancy, single-parenthood, foster-care placement, and increasing social isolation have eroded support for the youngest children, who also tend to fall between the cracks of public policy.

"The minute a child turns 5, we are quite willing to pay $5,000 a year in the form of schooling,'' said Edward F. Zigler, a panel member and the director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.

The paradox, Mr. Zigler observed, is that "parents are in it all alone'' at a time when children are the most developmentally vulnerable.

The United States "lags behind'' other industrialized countries in its investments and supports for young children, the report argues.

All Children 'Wanted'

To promote responsible parenting, the group urges comprehensive efforts by families, schools, religious institutions, and community-based youth groups to educate young people about parenthood. Such efforts should cover, in "age-appropriate, culturally sensitive'' ways, child-rearing and child development, human reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, behavioral and health risks, and the availability of family-support services.

"Increasing the proportion of planned, low-risk births requires a national commitment'' to expand access to both prenatal care and a "full range of family-planning services,'' the report states.

Proposals to extend Head Start to younger children and form networks of family-service centers would be incomplete, Ms. Schorr said, "if we didn't also include very strong recommendations for making sure children are born into circumstances where they are likely to thrive.''

"We took the position that it's desirable that all children be wanted,'' Dr. Richmond said. "All the potentialities that are legal it seemed appropriate to include.''

Other Proposals

Other recommendations include:

  • Providing, as part of a "minimum health-care-reform package,'' primary and preventive health-care services; immunizations; and preconception, prenatal, and postpartum services.
  • Offering home-visiting services to all first-time mothers with a newborn and more comprehensive visits to families at risk of poor maternal and child health.
  • Expanding the federal family-leave law to cover small firms and to provide leave for four to six months with partial pay.
  • Channeling substantial amounts of aid to improve child care for children under 3, providing incentives to states to improve child-care standards, and bolstering care-giver training, wages, and benefits.
  • Expanding federal nutrition programs to serve all eligible women and children and adapting Head Start to serve poor families with infants and toddlers.
  • Expanding programs to teach nonviolent conflict resolution and enacting stringent gun-control laws.

Playing Catch-Up

The report stresses the need for strategic planning by every community and encourages "broad experimentation'' in creating comprehensive family and child centers. It also calls on communities to create networks of family-centered programs.

The report urges federal agencies and states to remove obstacles to serving young children comprehensively and urges action by a wide range of social forces, including the media and parents.

Schools are just one part of the equation, the panel stresses, arguing that "efforts to raise educational standards and achieve workforce-quality goals'' cannot succeed if an estimated one-half of all babies "start life behind'' and do not get the aid they need to catch up.

Single copies of "Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children'' are available for $10 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, P.O. Box 753, Waldorf, Md. 20604; (212) 371-3200. Bulk rates are available.

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