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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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Early-Childhood Educators Tackle Accountability, Career Paths

The upbeat tempo of a traditional New Orleans jazz band preceded the opening session of the National Association for the Education of Young Children's annual conference. Sharon Lynn Kagan, the president of the 102,000-member organization, spoke of the challenges facing early-childhood educators.

Sharon Lynn Kagen

Among those challenges, she said, are the problem of low salaries and the staff shortages faced by many of the nation's child-care centers. Ms. Kagan observed that some preschool teachers have been known to "leave our profession for better-paying jobs at the mall and McDonald's."

Other formidable tasks range from determining proper discipline in the classroom to "trying to tell a legislator that early-childhood education is more than babysitting," she said.

The 20,000 members of the NAEYC who gathered for the Nov. 9-13 conference paid close attention to the subject of assessing young children and how the results of those assessments should be used.

Testing children younger than 3rd or 4th grade is a sharply debated practice among educators, and testing young children for the purpose of holding schools or students accountable for performance raises even more serious questions for many experts.In a seminar, Ms. Kagan summed up comments from a panel of speakers by noting that early-childhood educators could no longer downplay calls from policymakers for greater accountability.

Leaders in the field must be more diligent about determining the skills and knowledge that young children should acquire, she said.

"If we don't take up these tasks, others who know less and care little will take up the task for us," warned Samuel J. Meisels, a professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The speakers agreed that using assessments of preschool and primary-grade students to improve teaching is appropriate, but they emphasized that it is wrong to use the results in making decisions about children's placements in school.

"High standards are appropriate," Mr. Meisels said. "High stakes are not."

The challenge of maintaining high standards, competitive salaries, and reasonable tuition in early-childhood programs was the topic of a session presented by the members of the NAEYC's advisory group on quality, compensation, and affordability.

Moncrieff Cochran, who also serves on the association's governing board and is executive director of the early-childhood program at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., pointed out that the advisory panel outlined the features of a high-quality program of early child care and education.Up until the panel undertook that effort, he said, the NAEYC "never put out a blueprint."

Establishing salary scales, career ladders, and professional-development opportunities were among the methods suggested by the panel for recruiting and retaining skilled teachers.

Douglas Clark, the director of a church-based program located just outside Chicago, said building a community between early-childhood programs and public schools is a quality-conscious approach.

"The public schools are not the enemy," he said. "A larger network makes the program exemplary."

To improve child care provided by friends, neighbors, and family members in New York City, the Bank Street College of Education's Center for Family Support joined with community organizations on a two-year project that began in 1997, aimed at providing training to kith and kin caregivers.

A three-member panel of representatives from the Women's Housing and Development Corp., the Aquinas Housing Corp., and the Citizens Advice Bureau—New York-based advocacy organizations that collaborated on the project—spoke at the NAEYC conference about the program, which was designed to support 135 caregivers over 18 months.

Discipline, safety and health, nutrition, and prevention of child abuse were among the requested topics.

A survey of project participants showed that 99 percent were women, 25 percent had less than an 8th grade education, and 48 percent were receiving public assistance.

Almost all had experience caring for other children, either their own or siblings, and 21 percent had experience working or volunteering in schools.

Most family members did not receive any payment for their care, and the average length of time a provider worked with a child was two years.

--Michelle Galley & Linda Jacobson

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 7

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