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States Told to Enact Pre-K Guidelines

Requiring states to draw up learning guidelines for all young children—not just those in prekindergarten or Head Start—is part of President Bush's early education and literacy initiative, federal officials told members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children gathered here Nov. 20- 23 for their annual conference.

While local programs, such as child-care centers and preschools, will not be under a mandate to adopt the guidelines, states will be required to have them in place, said Shannon Christian, the associate commissioner of the Child Care Bureau, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Many states already have guidelines, but may need to expand them to apply to other settings," Ms. Christian said. Additional directions on just what the federal government is looking for should be available this month, she added.

She spoke during a session in which three Bush administration officials elaborated on the president's initiatives and responded to concerns that many in the early-childhood community are expressing. This is the second year that the conference has featured such appearances by administration officials.

The goal of writing such guidelines or standards, Ms. Christian said, is to improve young children's early-literacy skills "in all of the places where they spend their day," whether they are cared for in formal settings or by a relative.

She added, however, that "we're not talking about drill and kill" exercises for young children, and that a variety of training opportunities will be available for child-care providers.

Susan B. Neuman, the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, praised those who work in early-childhood education for the strides they have made over the past 30 years, such as focusing on the social as well as the academic needs of children, involving parents, and recognizing children's individual differences.

But she also challenged them to put more energy toward defining what young children should know and be able to do, and toward developing a coherent curriculum that doesn't fall back on familiar but disconnected themes, such as autumn or Thanksgiving.

Warning that she might anger some members of the audience, Ms. Neuman also urged them to expand their use of "direct instruction" methods in the classroom, saying that following the child's lead "is not the only way to teach."

Kathy Thornburg, the immediate past president of the NAEYC, responded that members of the early-childhood field are no longer offended by the term "direct instruction"—which refers to teachers leading instruction rather than children choosing what they will work on—and that most do understand how to balance different methods of teaching.

Some conference participants, who believe the Bush administration has not put enough money into early-childhood education, were critical of Ms. Neuman's response after she was asked how more money could be found in the federal budget for President Bush's early-childhood initiatives.

Ms. Neuman said that under the current administration, there had been more significant increases per year in education spending than there were during the Clinton administration. She added that states are not fully taking advantage of the freedom they have under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 to transfer money to early-childhood-education efforts.

Windy M. Hill, the associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau, followed up by saying that her agency must first "make sure we are using the dollars we have wisely."

In addition to talk about budget issues, many conference-goers were asking whether Mr. Bush still wants to move the Head Start preschool program for poor children from the Health and Human Services Department to the Education Department.

Ms. Hill said she had no news to report on that issue.

"Until the president shares his plan with the nation, I have no plan to share with you," she said, adding that Mr. Bush would probably discuss the matter when he gives his State of the Union Address in January.

—Linda Jacobson

Vol. 22, Issue 14, Page 12

Published in Print: December 4, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook
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