State policymakers often do not grasp the importance of high-quality care and education for young children, do not share a common language to discuss related issues, and lack a clear sense of how to shape early-childhood policy, asserts a report released here during the Education Commission of the States’ annual conference.
Such knowledge gaps often pose significant obstacles, the report says, as policymakers grapple with how to improve and coordinate services for young children, better prepare their states’ preschool teachers, and expand states’ capacity for planning and evaluating programs for early education.
The Denver- based ECS has worked with state policymakers over the past year in an effort to close those gaps as a part of an initiative focusing on early-childhood education. The organization’s annual conference, which took place from July 17- 21, featured early care and education as a prominent topic of discussion.
The report, “Starting Early, Starting Now: A Policymaker’s Guide to Early Care and Education and School Success,” outlines state efforts that the ECS deems promising, and includes a step-by-step guide for setting policy agendas that benefit young children and their families.
“We’ve got to improve the access, quality, and availability of early-childhood-education services,” New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who made early-childhood education the centerpiece of her recently completed term as the 2000-01 chairwoman of the ECS, said in an interview at the conference. “Some states are moving in that direction,” said Ms. Shaheen, a Democrat, “but we still invest less in the early years than in any other stage of our children’s journey into young adulthood.”
In a session focusing on what are often called “universal” preschool programs, the panelists discussed the challenges of forming statewide systems of early- childhood education at a time when family and commercial child-care centers, prekindergarten programs, and Head Start are all run separately.
While almost every state has some type of early-years initiative, no two states are at equal points in the process, said Nina Sazer O’Donnell, the director of family and community programs at the Families and Work Institute in New York City.
“The idea of creating a coherent, efficient system is kind of like taking a big mush of spaghetti and making it straight and neat,” said Ms. Sazer O’Donnell. “From a government perspective and a community perspective, it’s complicated, and it takes a long time.”
The panelists also described how the term “universal” can be misconstrued. Some lawmakers take the term to mean prekindergarten programs that are mandatory, a concept they find troubling.
In Georgia, the only state with state-financed preschool available to all 4- year-olds, the purely voluntary program is not referred to as “universal” prekindergarten, said Pam Shapiro, the deputy director of the state’s office of school readiness. That avoids the implication that preschool is required.
Even though the program is voluntary and has been lauded as a national model, Ms. Shapiro said, some people argue that offering preschool to all 4-year-olds isn’t a good idea.
“Not everyone agrees that this is a great use of state funds,” she said. “It gets a lot more appealing when you talk about low-income children.”
Experts in early-childhood education attending the conference also explored what type of assessments are appropriate for young children, given that the emergence of state accountability systems has sparked controversy over high-stakes testing at all levels.
Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor of early-childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a senior research scientist at Yale University’s child study center, said it is important that policymakers understand the principles of appropriate assessment for young children.
For example, Ms. Kagan said, young children should be assessed in natural settings—such as their classrooms—and should not be moved elsewhere. They also should be assessed by people they know, she added, and several times, from multiple perspectives.
“Children below age seven don’t grow in straight lines,” Ms. Kagan said. “They learn differently than older children. If you take a picture of any one day, it takes a picture just of that day.”
Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada, a Republican, officially began his one-year tenure as ECS chairman during the conference and announced that he would be focusing on literacy. The ECS Leading for Literacy initiative aims to ensure that every child is able to read by the 3rd grade, a goal Mr. Guinn also set forth in his State of the State Address last January.
“Literacy is the key to learning in other academic areas, and is the cornerstone of our education system, both at the state and national levels,” Mr. Guinn said. “I hope that the Leading for Literacy program will inspire lawmakers, educators, and parents everywhere to rededicate themselves to childhood literacy.”
—Jessica L. Sandham
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook