Early Childhood

Ed. Dept.'s Early-Childhood Advocate Eyes Bush Agenda

By Linda Jacobson — January 17, 2001 6 min read
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A college basketball fan, Naomi Karp often begins her public comments with a quote from John Wooden, the legendary University of California, Los Angeles, coach: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Although not loyal to the UCLA Bruins, Ms. Karp, as the director of the Early Childhood Institute at the Department of Education, believes the motto describes what she is trying to avoid as she works to make high-quality early- childhood-education programs available to more children.

“Kids are coming to school with such different backgrounds,” Ms. Karp, 58, said in a recent interview here. “We need to look at what we can do to build solid foundations.”

While she has led the institute since it was created as part of the department’s office of educational research and improvement in 1995, it wasn’t until recently that Ms. Karp’s efforts to highlight the needs of preschoolers began to pay off.

Now, she has a new priority: Persuading the incoming Bush administration to continue supporting what she sees as effective preschool initiatives.

“I am actually looking forward to having some new life breathed into these issues,” said Ms. Karp, a civil servant who worked under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush—the president-elect’s father—before serving the Clinton administration. She also served briefly under President Jimmy Carter.

Title I and Preschool

About a year ago, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley launched a departmentwide “ready to learn” initiative. One priority of the effort has been to encourage school districts to use more of their federal Title I funding to pay for programs that serve low- income preschool-age children.

“This has been an issue that has been on the Title I agenda for years,” said Mary Jean LeTendre, the longtime Title I director for the Education Department, who is retiring this month after 30 years of service to the federal education agency. Now, Ms. LeTendre said, research that proves good early-childhood programs have a positive impact on children is pushing the issue to the top of the agenda “more forcefully.”

Still, only $400 million of the roughly $7 billion Title I budget was spent on early-childhood education during the 1999-2000 school year, according to a recent report by the General Accounting Office. The report recommended that the government conduct more research on whether Title I aid is being used effectively to prepare children for school.

A Message for Teachers

Ms. Karp, a former elementary and junior high school teacher in Tucson, Ariz., and Fairfax County, Va., worked in special education when she first joined the Education Department in 1980. The issues she focused on in that area—such as the competence of special education teachers—also apply to programs for young children.

“It all boils down to equity and access,” said Ms. Karp, who as a teacher in a Tuscon barrio school piled her students into a couple of cars and took them to a local shopping mall so they could never again say they hadn’t been there.

While a host of reports and recommendations for improving early-childhood education have been released in recent years, Ms. Karp believes “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, has done the most to focus teachers’ attention on the crucial issue of language and vocabulary development.

Another report by the national academy, released last summer, zeroed in on what preschools and preschool teachers should do to help children succeed in school. A central recommendation in the report was that all teachers working with preschool-age children have at least a bachelor’s degree.

“Why,” Ms. Karp said, “should teacher quality be an issue for K-12 and not for 4-year- olds?”

But Ms. Karp and others who work in early-childhood education recognize how difficult it will be to achieve that goal—in large part, because of the low salaries offered to teachers in the field. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for a preschool teacher is about $7 an hour.

New Studies, High Hopes

With states and the federal government giving more attention to the concept of “universal” preschool for 4- year-olds and even children a year younger, Ms. Karp expects that early- childhood education will continue to include a diverse mix of providers.

She believes, however, that some important findings will come from a new study, sponsored by her office, that will examine 40 prekindergarten programs linked to school districts in five or six states.

Researchers plan to examine the educational backgrounds of the teachers, what they know about early literacy and math, and what kinds of teaching methods they use. The study will also follow the children through 2nd grade to determine what effect their preschool experiences had on their failure or success in elementary school. Beyond that, the institute is contributing about $200,000 of its $9 million annual budget to help pay for a study by the National Institute of Justice. In that study, researchers are visiting 80 Chicago neighborhoods to examine aggressive behavior in children of all ages; for the Early Childhood Institute, the researchers are studying children within their child-care centers. That part of the study will examine how preschool-age children deal with stress, and how they are affected by their child-care environments.

Bush Plan Raises Questions

Ms. Karp’s office hasn’t had much discussion about President- elect Bush’s campaign proposal to move the federal Head Start program, now located within the Department of Health and Human Services, into the Education Department. Mr. Bush argues that such a move would put a greater emphasis on the educational aspects of the program.

But Ms. Karp worries that if the president-elect pushes ahead with the plan, which is opposed by many in the early-childhood-education community, “a lot of energy will be spent fighting advocates instead of spent helping kids.”

Moreover, Ms. Karp and others suggest that moving the program into the Education Department would dilute the importance of the other services—such as health care and nutrition—that it now supports.

But the reality is that Mr. Bush’s agenda is different from President Clinton’s in certain respects, and Ms. Karp recognizes that. President-elect Bush has primarily emphasized early reading and literacy, including a “Reading First” proposal that would cost $5 billion over five years, with the goal of helping all children learn to read by the end of 3rd grade.

Mr. Clinton’s proposals, which were not enacted, included increases in the child-care and community-development block grant and scholarships for child- care workers to earn college degrees. Mr. Clinton did succeed in getting more money for Head Start, however.

Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush’s transition team, said the incoming president is committed to early- childhood education, but he believes it’s important to “get [children] on an academic track right away.”

She added that Mr. Bush might push for more flexible work hours to help parents with their child-care needs.

Ms. Karp said she believes the growing body of research on young children’s learning will help guide the new administration on early-childhood policy.

Hearts and Minds

Even with the nation’s growing interest in early-childhood education, Ms. Karp said, it is hard to “change hearts, minds, and values” in a department where most people are focused on the K-12 system.

Others echo her sentiments. “Sometimes, I think [Ms. Karp] has been a lone voice,” said Richard M. Clifford, a co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The center is underwritten by the federal Early Childhood Institute.

Even so, he added, Ms. Karp’s straightforward approach makes her a good advocate for young children because “she’s not afraid to speak her mind.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept.'s Early-Childhood Advocate Eyes Bush Agenda

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