Early Childhood

Administration Launches Effort To Boost Early-Childhood Skills

By Linda Jacobson — August 08, 2001 4 min read
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The Bush administration is launching a five-year, $50 million study to uncover the best ways to enhance all areas of children’s development and readiness for school success.

Officials from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services will lead the initiative, which ultimately aims to give teachers research-based information for strengthening the cognitive, emotional, social, and physical growth of children—especially those with potential learning difficulties and those who come from disadvantaged families.

The project was discussed at the recent White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development, which was convened by first lady Laura Bush.

“We want to learn what is the best,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who co-hosted the summit with Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Held in an ornate hall on the Georgetown University campus here, the July 26-27 event brought roughly 400 early-childhood educators, advocates, and researchers together for a series of presentations on the skills and experiences young children need to become strong readers and learners.

“How do they learn to read? What goes wrong when they don’t, and what do we do about that?” said G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

While the new study is being called a “transagency” effort, the project will be housed within the NICHD, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, “because we have that experience,” Mr. Lyon said.

In the meantime, knowledge that has already been established in the area of child development needs to get into the hands of people working in Head Start and other preschool programs, said Secretary Paige, who along with Mr. Thompson will lead a task force charged with that task.

Materials will also go to parents, librarians, and educators who train child-care providers. Recommendations and information from the task force could be available in as little as six months, Mr. Lyon said.

Emphasis on Reading

Several speakers at the conference stressed that the poor children have difficulties learning to read because they lack access to books, and their parents and child-care providers don’t talk to them in ways that enrich their vocabulary.

“The roots of reading difficulties lie in the preschool period,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the Education Department’s new assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

By the 1st grade, he told the participants, children from “linguistically advantaged” homes have four times as many vocabulary words as youngsters from disadvantaged homes do. Now researchers understand, he added, that the process of learning to read begins much earlier than kindergarten.

Susan B. Neuman, the new assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, added that classrooms also need to change.

“There is nothing developmentally inappropriate about having a lesson plan in pre-K,” she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Part of Mrs. Bush’s “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn” initiative, the summit was also used to showcase a variety of model programs designed to improve children’s early literacy.

Sarah M. Greene, the chief executive officer of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, said the Head Start community supports President Bush’s call to strengthen “pre- reading” skills among children in the federal program. But she stressed that “additional resources” would be needed to train teachers who were previously told that specific reading instruction—such as teaching the letters of the alphabet—should be delayed until kindergarten.

Budget Criticized

Many of the participants said they were encouraged by what they heard during the conference and by President and Mrs. Bush’s focus on education issues.

“I think they are opening the door, and we need to walk through it,” said Deborah Phillips, a child-development expert and the chairwoman of the psychology department at Georgetown.

The co-author of a National Academy of Sciences report recommending attention to young children’s social and emotional needs, Ms. Phillips added that even though the event here focused on cognitive growth, several speakers talked about the importance of a comprehensive approach.

But some expressed concern that certain issues were ignored. Mark Ginsberg, the executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based here, said he was troubled by the lack of discussion about professional development, compensation, and benefits for teachers of young children.

“We can train teachers to do great things, but when you have 30 percent turnover, it’s a sustainability issue,” he said.

The 100,000-member association also criticized Mr. Bush’s budget proposal, saying it “stands in stark contrast” to much of the research presented at the conference.

The administration is recommending a $200 million cut in child- care subsidies for low-income families and the elimination of the Early Learning Opportunities Act, a $20 million grant program that was originally proposed by President Clinton and was adopted in the fiscal 2001 budget.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Administration Launches Effort To Boost Early-Childhood Skills

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