Carnegie Offers Reform Strategy for Ages 3 to 10

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Many of the nation's young children already are faltering when they start kindergarten and achieve far below their potential during the early grades, a new report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York says.

Focusing on ages 3 to 10, the report calls on all of the institutions involved in a child's life, including families, preschool and after-school programs, and elementary schools, as well as the media, to provide exceptional care and educational programs.

"In every waking hour, kids in this age range are really sponging up every educational opportunity that's made available to them," said Michael Levine, a program officer at the foundation who worked on the report. "It's very important that what happens during the preschool years be of the same challenging variety and the same set of opportunities as elementary school."

"Years of Promise: A Comprehensive Learning Strategy for America's Children," which was scheduled for release this week, is the latest in a series of Carnegie reports on the welfare and education of children from birth through age 15. In 1989, "Turning Points" alerted parents, educators, and policymakers to the needs of young adolescents. "Starting Points," released in 1994, focused on the first three years of life and the need for strong families, high-quality child care, and comprehensive health care.

Over a span of two years, Carnegie's task force on primary-grade learning held public hearings, commissioned papers, and visited more than 60 schools and programs to prepare the report. Members of the task force include researchers, educators, business leaders, and a former admiral in the U.S. Navy.

"Years of Promise" picks up where "Starting Points" left off, covering a time when children are undergoing rapid emotional, social, and intellectual development. Their attitudes about themselves and toward school are taking shape during these years, and for most children, there's still time to make up for any earlier problems they may have had, the report says.

The report acknowledges the obstacles facing inner city, poor, and language-minority youngsters, saying disadvantaged children are less likely than others to attend quality preschool programs and are sometimes overlooked by teachers who don't believe they have the ability to succeed.

But the report warns that all children--regardless of family background or income level--can slip into a pattern of underachievement. It notes that two-thirds of all dropouts are not poor at the time they leave school.

Students Need Extra Help

Research has shown that children have a better chance of succeeding in school when they receive a good early-childhood education. But, the report says, too many 3- to 5-year-olds are in substandard programs where teacher pay is low and staff turnover is high. As many as one-third of American students entering the K-12 system need extra help to keep up with their peers, the report says.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's only ongoing test of what students know in a variety of academic subjects, provides evidence that too few elementary school students are doing well in school.

In 1994, 42 percent of the nation's 4th graders were unable to reach even the basic achievement level in reading. In 1992, most 4th graders--82 percent--were not proficient in math.

The Carnegie report also recommends that parents, overburdened by the demands of home and work, receive guidance in how to be their child's "first teacher" and prepare their child for school and reinforce learning at home.

'Nonsystem' of Early Care

Early care and education in this country--a hodgepodge of public and private programs, child-care centers, family day-care homes, and preschools--has been called a nonsystem by experts in the field. Some children are merely watched when their parents are at work, while others attend programs rich with educational activities.

"Years of Promise" calls for universal access to good preschool programs and asks federal, state, and local governments to improve licensing regulations and make early childhood a funding priority.

With welfare reform sending more mothers into the workforce, thousands of additional young children will need child care, and the amount states are spending will have to increase, said Sue Bredekamp of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"The level at which they fund child care will make the difference in whether those children enter school with the kind of social and cognitive development they need," Ms. Bredekamp said.

Effective Schools Needed

At the elementary level, "Years of Promise" recommends that states take the lead in setting content and performance standards by the end of the 4th grade.

But schools should help children to be able to meet standards, said Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va. "Don't just place those standards on the backs of children without giving them the help they need."

The report cites a number of instructional approaches shown to boost achievement, including Success for All and Roots and Wings--two programs developed by education researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Also mentioned is Reading Recovery, a one-on-one tutoring program now used in 47 states.

Elementary educators now have "a shelfful of programs" at their disposal, said Robert E. Slavin, one of the creators of Success for All and Roots and Wings who also served on the Carnegie task force.

"There is growing evidence of their replicability," he said. "They can be used in hundreds or thousands of schools. That was not true five years ago."

Funds Should Be Reallocated

Creating the kind of elementary schools described in the report won't necessarily require more money, said Allan R. Odden, another task force member and a school-finance expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Funds should be reallocated away from programs that don't work and toward more proven strategies. Improved and expanded preschool programs, however, will require extra dollars, he said.

Ms. Bredekamp of the NAEYC would like to see more support from the private sector, with employers including child care as a fringe benefit, just like health insurance or a pension plan.

States and districts also need to devote more money to training teachers, Mr. Odden said.

One less expensive way to offer staff development, at both the early-childhood and elementary levels, is to provide in-service or technical assistance to teachers instead of requiring additional college-level courses, Mr. Slavin said.

The Carnegie Corporation's two previous initiatives were followed by grant programs in various sites across the country, but Mr. Levine of the foundation said it was premature to say what size or scope the follow-up to "Years of Promise" will take.

Six cities and 10 states received "Starting Points" grants of roughly $250,000 each, matched by local groups. About 200 schools in 15 states received grants from Carnegie to implement the "Turning Points" recommendations for middle schools.

Vol. 16, Issue 03

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