Start and End Schooling Earlier, Ala. Chief Proposes

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At the usually uneventful annual meeting of the Alabama PTA, state schools Superintendent Ed Richardson made a shocking suggestion: He said the state might be better off if children started school at age 3 and graduated after the 10th grade.

The notion of starting--and possibly ending--public schooling a full two years earlier caught some Alabamians understandably off guard. Since the speech late last month, some educators and others have been trying to imagine the consequences of Mr. Richardson's recommendation.

Some have lauded the first-year schools chief. Others have greeted his idea with disdain. One newspaper editorial accused him of trying to snatch 3- and 4-year-olds out of their mothers' arms.

"What I was trying to do was to emphasize the need to intervene at an earlier age than 5 or 6," Mr. Richardson said in an interview last week. "If there was a fixed amount of money, and we wanted to spend it most wisely, we would spend it on 3- and 4-year-olds even if we had to eliminate 11th and 12th grade."

One of the poorest states in the nation, Alabama traditionally languishes at or near the bottom of rankings of student achievement and expenditures on public education. It continues to be under a court order to overhaul its school-finance system to provide an equitable and adequate education to its students.

Despite the impetus for change, Mr. Richardson said he realized even before he gave his speech that his plan is "not a practical solution" for now in Alabama.

Echoes of Goodlad

Mr. Richardson, the former superintendent in Auburn, Ala., may be the first state education chief to propose such a dramatic shift in the public school system. But he is not alone in thinking that school leaders should reconsider how and when students can be served more effectively.

Oregon legislators in 1991 passed a school-reform law that would eventually allow teenagers to leave school for training or college after obtaining a "certificate of initial mastery" at the end of the 10th grade. That idea has been promoted by reformers as a better way to move young people into postsecondary training or college.

Other states have considered changing the age at which children are required to attend school--in some cases as a way to let unmotivated teenagers out early, and in other cases as a way to reach younger children.

And the Alabama superintendent's idea echoes a plan that education theorist John I. Goodlad set forth in his 1984 book, A Place Called School.

Under Mr. Goodlad's approach, children would begin school at age 4, and the 11th and 12th grades would be eliminated. By shifting the education system toward younger students, Mr. Goodlad, like Mr. Richardson, believes older students would be better educated and the need for remediation substantially reduced.

Mr. Goodlad, the director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington in Seattle, supports an integrated early-elementary program for 4- to 7-year-olds. This system, he argues, would eliminate the bumpy road from nursery school to kindergarten to 1st grade and make early education more equitable.

Mr. Goodlad said last week that he knows how Mr. Richardson must be feeling. Outside of education officials in Israel and Switzerland, he said, few people gave much credence to his idea in the 1980s.

More often, he recalled, he was roundly criticized and asked questions like, "'What is going to happen to high school football?'"

Appropriate Preschool

Experts on early-childhood and secondary education believe a reconfigured system could have some benefits, if structured appropriately.

"It's important that school systems make sure they are designed with the special needs of children in mind, not just watered-down versions of the programs that are offered for older children," said Barbara A. Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Educators of Young Children, based in Washington. "You don't want them sitting at desks all day, but frankly, we don't want 8-year-olds sitting at desks all day."

John Lammel, the director of high school services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., said older students need to learn workplace skills or find ways into community colleges.

Without knowing the specifics of the proposal floated before the Alabama PTA, however, Mr. Lammel said he did not know if it would be appropriate for all students, especially those on track for a four-year college.

Given the political and financial realities of his state, Mr. Richardson is unlikely to get to the point of actually structuring such a system anytime soon.

In the interim, he said, he intends to use some $2 million to $3 million in the state's budget for at-risk children to expand education for young parents.

"If our preschool intervention pays dividends, it would logically follow to provide education services to 3- and 4-year-olds," Mr. Richardson said.

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