Educators Urged To Emphasize Significance of Early Schooling

By Anne Bridgman — February 05, 1986 4 min read

Experts urged teachers and school officials meeting here last month to “seize the moment” created by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s designation of this a the “Year of the Elementary School” to drive home the message that early schooling is critical to later development.

“This may be a turning point in the way our society views elementary education,” predicted Allan Shedlin Jr., a member of Mr. Bennett’s 21-member Elementary Education Group and director of the Elementary School Center, which sponsored the meeting. '''Things may never be the same for those who work with young children.”

‘Comprehensive View’ Stressed

But other speakers--from education, medicine, and related fields--told the 240 conference participants that, if change is to be constructive, it must encompass a new, more comprehensive, perception of elementary schooling.

The elementary school must be viewed as part of a child’s overall development--physical, social, and emotional, as well as educational--they were told, not as a rung on the ladder to high-school graduation.

The meeting was the first of what will be an annual conference series sponsored by the New York-based E.S.C., formed in 1983 to improve the quality of schooling in preschool through grade 8.

Stressing that elementary school represents “the most important institutional experience in a child’s life,” Mr. Shedlin encouraged participants to discuss with other professionals the key developmental role of elementary education.

“Let us seize the moment,” he said, “to ensure that the American public knows it is at the elementary level that the foundations for the future are formed.”

Emphasizing ‘How,’ Not ‘What’

Ruth B. Love, formerly superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools and currently a commentator for ABC-TV in Chicago, characterized the elementary school as “a developmental launching pad for the children of our society” and said its special mission is to teach children “how to learn, rather than merely prescribing what to learn.”

Teachers, said Ms. Love, should help children build positive self-images, make wise decisions, and know the difference between right and wrong.

‘Intelligence Not Enough’

“Intelligence alone is not enough,” she said, quoting Martin Luther King. “We must have intelligence with character.”

Ms. Love also urged elementary school specialists to spend more time determining what skills children will need to develop, and when, to deal with an increasingly technological society.

“We are just around the corner from the 21st century,” she said, noting that children entering kindergarten last fall will be high-school graduates in 1998.

Calling the elementary school the “first of the educational institutions in our society,” ranking second only to the family, she said that “the future of education is in our hands; it can only be what we make of it.”

An End in Itself

Melvin D. Levine, director of the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said schools have a preoccupation with “preparing children” but are not always sure for what.

The elementary level, he said, should be seen as an end in itself. And, in addition to helping children develop such attributes as respect for self and others, teachers should function as role models, “make the universe exciting,” and create avenues to self-knowledge.

He warned against the notion that all children learn and perform at comparable peed and in comparable ways. There is actually great variation in the way children perform different kinds of tasks, said Dr. Levine, and adults should not try to force uniformity on children.

Instead, he said, they should recognize diversity, learn to distinguish disabilities from differing cognitive styles, and encourage “a celebration of children’s uniqueness.”

Educators must also be conscious of sociological influences that affect classroom behavior, he said. These may include not only television and music, he said, but also “middle-class structural imperatives” such as dance lessons, conflicts between home and school, the quest for identity, and peer pressure.

Dr. Levine urged the E.S.C. to study a number of issues in the field, including ways in which elementary schools can adapt their curricula to the diversity that exists among children in intellectual development, cultural background, economic circumstance, and temperament.

Schools should stress the individuality of young children, he said, should gear their activities to various levels of intellectual attainment, should encourage teamwork among teachers, and should seek ways to prevent early-adolescent alienation.

Dr. Levine also urged teachers to learn more about children and “become experts in primary child care.” The gap that exists between research and practice must be narrowed, he said.

The pediatrician told conferees that early in his career, he had observed and examined many dysfunctional children who were “chronically success-deprived.” From these experiences, he said, he began to ask whether society had a “colossal misunderstanding” about childhood.

Today, he said, educators should join pediatricians and others who work with children to find answers to this fundamental question.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1986 edition of Education Week