Complex Set of Pieces Needed To Fill In School-Readiness Puzzle

By Deborah L. Cohen — February 12, 1992 18 min read

Besides bolstering parenting skills, he argued, such efforts should help lift parents’ “self-respect” by helping them enhance their literacy skills, education, or training.

If children enter school already at risk, they argue, it will be that much harder to raise high-school graduation rates, boost students’ competency in key subjects, advance the position of U.S. students to first in the world in science and mathematics, ensure that all adults are literate, and rid schools of drugs and violence.

“If we met Goal 1, we would probably come closer to meeting the other goals,” said Sue Bredekamp, the director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

But meeting that goal, experts in education, health, and human services acknowledge, will require overcoming a complex sot of obstacles and implementing a sot of interventions far more comprehensive than anything now in place.

“We have made progress in the way we’ve defined readiness to include health, support and education for parents, and good early’childhood care,” said Heather Weiss, the director of the Harvard University Family Research Project.

“But we have sot ourselves up for not simply being able to add a program or improve existing programs ... but to pull together elements that are rarely pulled together,” she added.

To some, the problem is still one of definition.

“There is no broadly agreed to, commonly accepted definition” of the age group, range of services, or outcomes that determine readiness, noted Robert L. Wehling, the vice president of public affairs for Procter & Gamble Company in Cincinnati. A related concern, said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, is how progress toward Goal 1 is assessed.

“Whichever way you sot up the measures will have a lot to do with the kind of strategy you pursue to make things better,” he said. To others, the key is resources. “There aren’t many obstacles,” Keith Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, assorted. “There’s just one: money.”

Others detail the complexity of gaining the support and collaboration of all the groups and players needed to meet the goal.

“It just isn’t a mystery in terms of what we ought to be doing,” Mr. Ambach said. “The problem is, how do you wrap it up so it’s a coherent program.’?”

Not Part of the Agenda?

But an even more daunting challenge, many maintain, is marshaling the “political will.”

“One of the reasons that I don’t think we have had much progress yet [on Goal 1] is because it has not been made part of the political agenda,” Ms. Weiss said.

With few exceptions, she noted, “there are more businessmen who understand the need to invest early in comprehensive services for kids than there are politicians who understand.”

“We are way behind most industrialized countries” that offer broad support for young children in the form of child care, preschool, and family leave policies, Mr. Ambach noted.

But the shift in thinking, said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior associate at Yale University’s Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, must come not only from politicians but also from the broader public.

“We need an attitudinal change... in the national Zeitgeist of thinking that accords priority to very young children,” she said. “I would like to see a society that recognizes that readiness is everyone’s business.”

Such political, economic, and social obstacles make some experts skeptical about what can be accomplished.

Nonetheless, they say they do not want to miss a rare chance to spotlight the early years.

“We try to see it as an opportunity to call attention to some legitimate problems and issues and to seize the initiative to do things that are good for the state, regions, and localities,” said Tynette Hills, the coordinator of the office of early-childhood education for the New Jersey Department of Education. Ms. Hills is also president of the National Association of Early-Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.

“Although a lot of us feel cynical, we want to seize the moment,” Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C. said.

Task Forces and Reports

The readiness goal involves three objectives:

  • Ensuring that all disadvantaged and disabled children have access to high quality, “developmentally appropriate” preschool programs;
  • Seeing that all parents get the support they need to act as their children’s first teachers and spend time each day helping their preschool children learn; and
  • Improving access to prenatal and other health care to reduce the number of low-birth weight babies and ensure children get adequate nutrition and health care.

Since the goal was set, a wide range of groups have established task forces and committees to explore how to meet it. (See related story, this page.)

Tackling one of the more controversial aspects of the goal, a technical advisory panel to the National Education Goals Panel offered recommendations on how to assess children’s readiness in a report it prepared last September. The report is being refined based on comments from the field.

In two other reports, released in December, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Association of State Boards of Education attempt to define the scope of the readiness problem and offer comprehensive strategies for meeting Goal 1. (See Education Week, Dec. 11, 1991.)

As part of a broader initiative called “Healthy Children Ready to Learn,” U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello is sponsoring a conference this week on the role of parents in promoting readiness.

At a recent invitational conference sponsored by the federal Bureau of Child and Maternal Health in conjunction with the Surgeon General and Pennsylvania State University, scientists spanning the social and biological sciences presented studies on a wide range of factors that affect children’s capacity to learn and began drafting recommendations for policymakers.

In the Health and Human Services Department and the Education Department, task forces have been charged with coordinating early-childhood activities related to readiness, exploring ways to involve parents in activities, and identifying and circulating information on model programs to communities.

Loaded Word

One fundamental problem with the readiness goal, Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C. and others maintain, is how it is worded.

While the goal is most frequently associated with the preschool period, some experts have begun to advance a definition that extends beyond kindergarten and addresses factors connected with learning throughout the life cycle.

“The health and social and emotional needs of families and children and youth and communities... don’t go away when a child enters school,” said David Rostetter, who coordinates the school-readiness initiative for Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan.

At the recent conference organized by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau and Penn State, top scientists from several disciplines proposed abandoning the concept of school readiness and substituting continued readiness to learn.

Experts from the child-serving professions who were convened recently by the Elementary School Center in New York City also proposed expanding Goal 1 to ensure that “every child comes to school every day ready to learn” and that “every school is ready for every child.”

The goal’s wording troubled early-childhood experts from the outset, Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C. said, because it “implied that a child didn’t do any learning prior to school, and that any difficulties they encountered were their own fault.”

Teachers’ “differing expectations” of what constitutes readiness, she noted, may unfairly pressure or penalize children or foster inappropriate classroom practices.

Multidimensional Focus

Rather than casting the issue in terms of unready children, some researchers at the conference organized by the child-health bureau suggested that some educators have become “overexpecters.”

Ms. Hills of the New Jersey Department of Education agreed that care must be taken so that the goal does not perpetuate “what appears to have been a trend over the last several years of making kindergarten more stringently and narrowly academic, thus predisposing a number of children to unhappy experiences.”

While Goal 1 aptly recognized the importance of the preschool years, a 1990 N.A.E.Y.C. position statement noted, it should also promote teaching approaches and policies that respond to the wide variations in young children’s development, help compensate for inequities in their early-life experiences, and shift the onus to schools to be “ready” to meet young children’s needs.

In a report published late last year, the panel convened by NASBE also placed responsibility for readiness on parents, communities, and policymakers and sketched a definition encompassing not only children’s innate capacities but also their health, self confidence, and social skills.

Researchers at the child-health conference outlined a wide range of “contextual” factors--from living environments and peer relations to teachers’ attitudes and cultural biases--that shape readiness.

“Readiness is not a one-dimensional measure,” said Olivia Golden, the director of programs and policy for the Children’s Defense Fund. “It’s about young children’s whole set of experiences at home and in the community.”

Inviting More Tests?

In addition to perpetuating a narrow definition of readiness, some experts fear that Goal 1 could encourage testing practices that they consider unreliable for young children.

“Just using the word has the potential of inviting more readiness tests,” said Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado.

Ms. Shepard has collected data suggesting that children held back or tracked into special classes based on readiness tests do not fare better than those of similar capacity who enter 1st grade on time and may actually suffer harm.

Readiness, she said, “is so evocative of the misuse that we’ve been seeing of school districts giving tests to decide if kids are ready and either not letting them in or relegating them to two-year kindergartens if they are not.”

“Since schools reflect middle-class values and knowledge systems, poor children will be at a great disadvantage,” said Barbara Bowman, the director of graduate studies at the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, located in Chicago.

Measuring readiness, in fact, has been one of the thorniest issues faced by the National Education Goals Panel.

When the group last year was unable to identify an acceptable readiness test, panel members divided along party lines over whether the first progress report on the goals should instead include data on prenatal and child health, preschool enrollment, family life, and other factors affecting a child’s ability to learn.

In a compromise worked out between Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the Democrat who then chaired the goals panel, and Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the Republican who now chairs it, such measures were included in a separate section of the report card.

A working group convened by a resource group advising the goals panel on how to assess progress on Goal 1 issued a report last fall proposing an in-school assessment process to gather data on children during their kindergarten year. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1991.)

Using parent and teacher observations, individually administered profiles of skills and knowledge, and a portfolio of children’s performance, the assessment would gauge children’s physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, language usage, and cognition and general knowledge.

To avert “potential misuse,” the report “assiduously avoids” the term readiness. It also stresses that results should not be used to “label, stigmatize, or classify” individual children or groups.

To help safeguard against such practices and to protect individual children’s identities, the group also advised that the assessment be done on a sample basis.

But at a recent goals-panel meeting, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and some governors pressed for an assessment that would provide all parents information about their children’s readiness for school.

Obstacle or Challenge?

While the working group’s recommendations have generated generally favorable comments, Mr. Ambach of the chief state school officers noted that the assessment debate marks a “pretty significant split” between backers and foes of standardized measures.

“What the governors are looking for is really a readiness test ... and most of the resource panelists are reluctant,” said Nicholas Zill, the executive director of Child Trends, a Washington group specializing in data on children. Some experts who submitted feedback to the working group on the assessment report charged that the issue has sidetracked action on children’s services.

“The whole education-goals-panel activity has concentrated on how to measure progress rather than on how to achieve the goal,” Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C. said.

The Carnegie Foundation’s recent report, which laid out an ambitions strategy designed to improve children’s readiness, recognized that “equal attention has to be given to steps we need to take to fulfill the objectives,” Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the foundation, noted in a recent interview.

But the testing debate, many insist, has served a useful purpose.

The panel’s work is “an honest effort and real opportunity to come to grips with how we are going to assess young children’s progress and society’s progress in meeting the needs of young children,” said Ms. Kagan of Yale, who headed the panel that issued the assessment recommendations.

“The assessment issue is important,” she added, “but it is not what is holding us back.”

One thing that has thwarted progress, many say, is a lack of funds.

In its report, the readiness working group proposed the establishment of a National Commission on Early Childhood Assessment to initiate and supervise development of the panel’s assessment proposals.

But it is not yet clear where the financial backing will come from.

And while increasing numbers of states are investing in initiatives-from preschool programs to parenting education--that target high risk groups or address pieces of the problem, the goal of making full day, high-quality preschool programs universally available remains elusive, experts say.

Some, like Mr. Geiger of the N.E.A. and Mr. Ambach of the chief state school officers, say federal, state, and local resources should be tapped to fund preschools through the public schools.

“It’s never happened, because there’s never been a willingness to invest that kind of money at that level,” Mr. Ambach said.

Although President Bush recently proposed a substantial increase in Head Start funding, advocates say it would still fall far short of serving all the disadvantaged preschoolers who are eligible. (‘See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

“As much as there is a consensus” around fully funding Head Start, Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C. said, “that ought to be most durable-but we can’t even do that.”

Others say the funding gap is also impeding expanding children’s access to health care, improving youngsters’ nutrition, and ensuring that all children are immunized.

“it’s an outrage that we don’t use the knowledge we have to assure the physical and emotional health of children when they enter school,” said Jack Shonkoff, a professor of pediatrics and the chief of developmental and behavior pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “For preventable, treatable, or curable problems to appear at the schoolhouse door is unacceptable.”

Offering health care and treatment to such populations as pregnant substance-abusers, noted Linda McCart, a senior policy analyst for the National Governors’ Association, “is a whole lot easier and less expensive than trying to care for a ‘crack baby.’” The same can be said, others say, for ensuring health insurance for pregnant women and children or adequate pay for child-care workers.

But as fiscally strapped states cut programs ranging from welfare benefits to school aid, “we will be doing well just to hold our own,” Ms. Bowman of the Erikson Institute said. “Unless we have a new player in terms of resources, my expectation is that class sizes will get larger and supportive services will get less.”

Collaboration Urged

A major barrier to Goal 1, experts point out, is the lack of an “infrastructure” for reaching children from birth to age 5.

“There is no one institution or set of institutions that has access to all of those families, so it’s a hit-or-miss proposition,” said Douglas R. Powell, the head of the department of child development and family studies at Purdue University. “It takes time to work through all those layers of bureaucracy.”

Experts agree that meeting the goal’s objectives--especially in the current fiscal climate--will require unprecedented coordination among health, education, and social services agencies and groups that are themselves fragmented.

“The hard work is going to have to take place at the local community level,” said Judith E. Jones, a clinical professor of public health at Columbia University and the director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, located in New York.

To highlight the link between health and school success, said Rae Grad, the executive director of the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, “there should be a medical professional on the search committee for a school superintendent, or education people on a public-health advisory committee.”

Helping communities develop comprehensive plans for serving young children and families, Ms. Jones said, will require a combination of federal, state, and local supports, including easing funding restrictions that keep agencies from pooling and coordinating resources.

“To make a quantum leap in progress, we may need to establish someone who is a child advocate who has the authority to cut across old lines ... with an emphasis on truly meeting the needs of the client,” Mr. Wehling of Procter & Gamble said.

Despite the obstacles, experts say, framing Goal 1 to involve so many players was appropriate.

“By broadly conceptualizing the readiness goal, we are doing a wonderful job of having the constituency broadened,” Ms. Kagan of the Yale Bush Center said. “On the other hand, by casting it so widely, you raise the question of who’s really going to be accountable.”

While that responsibility extends beyond schools, experts maintain that educators can play a key role in helping make progress toward Goal 1.

“Some of us put more emphasis on the need for schools to change to be more adaptable to the range of children and what they bring with them,” said Lilian G. Katz, the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early-Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

To “minimize retention and early categorization of children,” she said, schools must respond to developmental and cultural differences among children and involve them in “serious investigation which is intellectually engaging.” She also advocated the use of nontraditional mixed-age grouping and team-teaching practices.

Arguing that “serious staffing problems” are undermining early childhood programs, Ms. Hills of the New Jersey Department of Education stressed the need for stepped-up efforts to recruit, keep, and train staff members.

Ensuring that schools “approach children with developmentally appropriate [programs] and instruction,” said John MacDonald, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, will take “a tremendous effort not only in preparatory education but continuing education.”

The department, he noted, has also been working with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote programs that ease the transition, and ensure a consistent philosophy, between Head Start and school.

In the past, noted Ms. Kagan of the Yale Bush Center, such efforts have often focused on short-term activities that did not ensure the “continuity of pedagogy” needed to sustain gains made in preschool.

‘Civilizing People’

Researchers at the scientific conference also called for interdisciplinary training to ensure that professionals across sectors have a broad perspective and can pool their expertise.

“We have not in schools of education given teachers a human-development framework,” said Diana Slaughter-Defoe, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.

That framework, she said, should highlight the need to involve parents and meet children’s needs beyond mastering skills.

In addition to curricular reforms, Mr. Ambach of the chief state school officers argued, schools’ role must be redefined and facilities revamped to make them the “primary contact point” for the referral or delivery of a wide range of services to families.

For such efforts to succeed, however, many agree that parents must play a pivotal role.

Rather than focusing on “counting to 10 or knowing the alphabet,” said Dorothy Rich, the president of the Home and School Institute Inc., interventions should help parents bolster children’s social and organizational skills and zeal for learning.

“Readiness is really civilizing people,” she said.

For disadvantaged families in particular, said Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “oar intervention with a child becomes much more effective if [it] causes a positive change in the parents’ behavior as well.”

Besides bolstering parenting skills, he argued, such efforts should help lift parents’ “self-respect” by helping them enhance their literacy skills, education, or training.

But many agree that creating the ideal conditions for a generation of young children to succeed will require large-scale societal change.

Besides ensuring families access to the support and services they need, said Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C., “YOU wouldn’t have any homeless children, any unimmunized children, or children not covered through health insurance. No child would be living in poverty.”

“Even in affluent homes,” she added, “you wouldn’t have exposure to horrible, violent television or bad care. You would have high-quality child care for all who needed it. And then you would still have to make sure that what schools expected was appropriate.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Complex Set of Pieces Needed To Fill In School-Readiness Puzzle