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What Is Enough? When Is Too Soon?

November 11, 2019 8 min read

Education Week: There appears to be a growing movement toward earlier and earlier schooling for children--kindergarten, now prekindergarten, nursery schools. This raises the question of readiness. How do we determine when a child is ready for formal schooling?

Allan Shedlin: Readiness is readiness for what? One of the problems at the elementary level is that we always think of elementary school merely as preparation for something else. A series of ads in The New York Times by Bloomingdale’s about a year or two ago spoke about children as the next generation--almost as if they didn’t exist now.

There is an obsession always to talk about elementary school as if its only function is to prepare kids for middle school or high school.

Dennis Gray: There are a lot of kids who aren’t ready for school the way it is now constituted. It is not a child-centered form of schooling at all. It is school-centered. It is centered on structure and the preservation of it. It does matter what the child is ready for. If he or she is not ready for this, then it is bad news for the child.

Mr. Shedlin: Perhaps the question should be: Is the school ready, rather than is the child ready? That acknowledges the reciprocity between the school and the child. The school needs to be responsive to what the child is bringing to it as well.

E.W.: Are policymakers looking at readiness in terms of readiness for the structure that now exists, or is the implication that we should change the structure to be more responsive? What is happening out there?

Mr. Gray: The issue of readiness at this age or that age is just another way of avoiding the more important question of readiness for what?

We ought to know what it is that we want the school to accomplish. Then we can decide what we want to do about admission to that particular process. That isn’t what is going on. We are talking about issues other than the purpose of schooling when we raise the readiness question. They are really just structural and demographic and taxation issues, and child-care issues. They don’t happen to deal with the development of the child in the way they should.

Terry Peterson: The elementary-school structure is there. And if you are going to change it, it is going to take a long time. I am not sure it could be changed in the next 15 or 20 years. That is a reality. Second, middle- and upper-income kids for the most part do attend preschool programs. So they are probably having the least trouble with school to begin with. They have a head start of a year or two or three. So apart from what is going to happen in elementary schools, we need to be concerned about children from low-income homes and handicapped children. The structure is secondary to those concerns.

Our state and other states are starting to invest a lot of money in programs for 4-year-olds and mandatory kindergarten. There is an escape valve, so if a child is not felt to be ready by a parent or anybody else, you can get out of that quite easily. But most people don’t. And the reason we have acted is that we have a lot of kids who have not done well in school. And it seems to pile up on them. There is a major difference in those who have been through 4- and 5-year-old programs in so-called readiness skills and individual developmental scales--a tremendous difference.

Our kindergarten does worry about the whole child. It is important how you set it up. It can be very helpful in preparing pupils for the structure that comes after.

So I think that to not deal with early education in the context of reality is really shortsighted. In fact, we have to go way beyond this.

In South Carolina, we provide every parent of a newborn child with a packet of information from the governor and state superintendent of education that gives them tips on health care and where to go with a variety of problems. This is just a little bitty step, but it really helps certain parents.

The area of early education is ripe. Some of the schools should be getting involved directly. They don’t necessarily have to run all the programs, but to get the money right now for 4-year-olds, the funnel has to go through the schools. And you can use all kinds of arrangements with nonprofit groups and so on, but I think this is just a hot area now. And I would hope that we all get involved in it.

E.W.: Are the preschool programs going to have the same rigidness of structure that the schools have? If so, is there a possibility that children will be harmed rather than helped?

Benjamin Bloom: I think preschool is a phenomenon of the new ways of woman rather than anything else. The main problem is, I think, to be sure that the preschool programs are not doing more harm than good. But there is no question in my mind that a mother who is really interested in her child teaches that child so much more than the child could learn with a group of 20 or 30 other children.

Mr. Shedlin: If the mother is home.

Mr. Bloom: I am only trying to say that what we have done is to take the child away from almost a tutoring program--the mother--and the mother is enormously more successful than a group program. There is no way that you can avoid that.

Mr. Shedlin: But I read in The New York Times on March 16 that 48 percent of mothers of infants are found to hold jobs. So it seems to me that the question is: If the child is not going to be able to be at home, where is the best place for the child to be? And that is a question that needs to be asked in each locale. The more important question is: What are we doing with the children when they are there? If what we are doing is taking the 1st-grade curriculum and teaching it two years earlier, that would be a rather destructive thing to do.

So it is really a two-part question in my mind. One is looking at what are the options in an individual area. And second: What are schools doing if, indeed, school is where the children are going to be?

Samuel Sava: The concern of the National Association of Elementary School Principals is that we might end up doing more harm than good. So we’d better move in and at least make ourselves heard. One, we do not have trained personnel right now to properly handle preschool or prekindergarten programs. We lack proper training. If we think all we have to do is put an elementary teacher or an elementary principal in a program for 4-year-olds, we are making a terrible mistake.

When we are talking about implementing programs for 4-year-olds, which we support, we are talking about not just the care of youngsters in schools but about the entire structure that is required to help children and not hurt children. That includes inservice and preservice training of teachers-but not to replace the family, the mother or the father. I think that would be a terrible mistake. This has to be supplemental.

We should do everything in our power to help parents maintain that direct link with their youngster. And if we don’t come forward with strong recommendations, then once again, as educators who have worked with young children, we are not making a contribution.

Patricia Carini: Because the school structure is there, it is convenient to funnel money through it to the care of children. But it is not at all clear to me that schools are necessarily the right place for that care to be provided. Schooling in the narrow sense of getting children ready to do something in the future that depends upon the skill acquired doesn’t have much to do with care.

We have lots of knowledge about how to do good early-childhood education. There is a long and beautiful history here going back to 1824. And so we have lots of thinkers to draw upon, but most importantly we have the parents. Parents know a whole lot about children. Like teachers, they are just packed full of understanding and knowledge. And, by and large, schools don’t tap that knowledge very often. But if we don’t do that, then these early-childhood programs are going to end up being schooling. I don’t think that it will go any other way.

Mr. Bloom: My students have been studying the so-called Child/Parent Centers in Chicago. There are a few of them now, but we studied one that began about 10 or 12 years ago. And we followed these children over a period of about 10 years. I had never before seen children come from that depth of poverty to such a very high level of learning. One of the things about it was that in order for the school to accept the child at age 3 or 4, one of the parents had to be in the school for half a day each week.

For the first six months, it was that way. Later on, it was once a month. Anyway, the parents got to know a great deal about what was going on on the other side of the school door and were able now to maximize their support for their children. And we would see these children versus the neighbor children, how they would change over the years in terms of learning, in terms of attitudes and the like.

If early programs are merely something run by professionals, the effect is not really going to be very great. If you have some way of having the parents have some voice in it, having them come to school, if only to see what is going on there, but also to help where possible, then you may see a difference.

Lorraine Monroe: Education for 4-year-olds is just a marvelous idea. But if we don’t really think about the quality of training of a teacher, if we don’t think about the quality of program, and what we mean by program, we are in trouble. If we don’t think about accessibility for people who really need this kind of care, then we are in trouble. I call it early intervention for prevention--that is what this program is about. It is not just the working mothers, although it is a woman’s issue. It is about giving kids a fast start who wouldn’t have it ordinarily.

I wrote in my notes: ''big chance,” because I think in the thrust toward educating kids early--if we are wise enough and can pull together the kinds of things that we talked about--we have a big chance to change what happens in elementary-school education.

Ms. Carini: On the other hand, we need to bear in mind that what we have done to our kindergarten in recent years is create a contradiction in terms by creating academic kindergartens. There is no garden that is academic. We have pushed certain kinds of skills downward from grade 1.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week


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