Don’t Skimp on Preschool, Early-Childhood Study Urges

By Linda Jacobson — July 12, 2000 5 min read

Asserting that universally available, publicly financed preschool is clearly “on the horizon” in this country, a new report on early-childhood education lays out a vision that includes having all preschool classes led by college-educated teachers with specialized training.

For More Information

Read “Eager To Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers” online.

“Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers,” a report from the National Research Council, calls for a well-organized preschool system that would give all children—especially those deemed at high risk for school failure—the tools they need to succeed academically.

While activities such as art, music, and crafts should continue to play an important role in preschool classrooms, the report says, the curriculum should focus primarily on reading, mathematics, and science.

“We are on the verge of a new national consensus on the value and importance of early-childhood education,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said late last month when he spoke to some 500 people attending an early- childhood “summit” here. The executive summary of “Eager to Learn"—the only part of the report that has been released—was the topic of the gathering, which drew officials and early-childhood-education experts from every state.

Many who attended the June 23-24 conference said the “Eager to Learn” document is powerful because it is grounded in new research showing that young children are more capable learners than ever before believed. The report focuses on 2- to 5- year-olds.

“There is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed,” the summary says.

Teacher Training Urged

Much of the discussion here focused on how to upgrade teacher- training programs in early-childhood education, and how to provide teachers in preschools and child-care centers with planning time and a more supportive environment.

Catherine Snow, an education professor at Harvard University and a speaker at the conference, said requiring degrees and certification for K-12 teachers but not for those who work with young children is like providing qualified pilots to fly 747s, but not 727s, “because they are so much littler.”

Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said that her Washington-based organization “has been moving in many of the directions” called for in the report as it revises its own policies on teacher training.

Ms. Hyson said that many teacher education programs in the early- childhood field still operate with outdated knowledge about how young children learn. And such programs spend too much time showing teachers how to come up with “cute activities for children,” she added.

Still, Ms. Hyson said she hoped the mounting calls for requiring bachelor’s degrees to teach in the field would not be demeaning to the legions of veteran early-childhood teachers without college-level training.

Questions About Standards

The National Research Council committee that wrote the report calls for setting content standards for early-childhood education that include “phonological awareness, number concepts, methods of scientific investigation, and cultural knowledge and language.”

Experts in the field have long agreed on the need for clearer expectations about what young children should learn. But many are also concerned that standards too often turn into specific outcomes, beginning something like: “By age 4, children should be able to ...”

Such statements, many experts say, ignore the reality that young children do not develop at the same rate.

“The notion of lock-stepped development in children is not useful,” the report summary says. “Children present themselves to preschool teachers or caregivers with many differences in their cognitive, social, physical, and motor skills.”

Standards for preschoolers have already been written by such groups as the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, but Ms. Hyson says subject-area content standards are not enough.

“We’re concerned that a message would be sent that children should be taught in separate packages,” she said.

Early-childhood educators are also worried about the growing emphasis on testing and accountability. For young children, they say, assessments should not be used to make decisions about promotion to the next level of education, retention at the current level, or assignment to special education, but should be used to improve instruction.

“We have to go beyond the idea of not doing harm,” said Elizabeth M. Graue, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We have to do benefit.”

‘Going To Take a While’

The question of how to finance a universal preschool system received little discussion at the conference, nor is it addressed in depth by the report’s summary.

But the report does recommend that one of the federal government’s highest priorities should be to “fund well-planned, high-quality center-based preschool programs for all children at high risk of school failure.”

“It’s going to take a while to have universal preschool,” said Barbara T. Bowman, the chairwoman of the NRC’s Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy and the president of the Erikson Institute of Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago. “In the meantime, it makes sense to do this first.”

A few statements also were made at the conference about taking greater advantage of federal Title I funds, which are designed to serve poor school-age children but can also be used for early-childhood education.

Ms. Snow went so far as to say that federal money should be diverted from elementary education and used at the preschool level. If that money is spent on 4-year-olds, she argued, it won’t be needed for remediation later.

While the state governors were invited to attend the early-childhood gathering, none was present. Several, however, sent staff members.

“I’m not disappointed because it is the people in those offices who do the work,” said Naomi Karp, the director of the National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education, an office within the Department of Education. Ms. Karp requested the report from the NRC, the research arm of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Don’t Skimp on Preschool, Early-Childhood Study Urges