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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Perspectives / Not Too Early to Learn

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      Today, about 60 percent of children under 5 in the United States spend part of their day in the care of people other than their parents. This time averages to about 30 hours a week, Lynn Olson writes in Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success.
      Although for some children, day care means being fed and supervised, for an increasing number of preschoolers, school begins at age 3 or 4, with literacy and numeracy as the goal. In fact, in 40 states, a preschool program is part of the public school system. Unfortunately, the quality and funding of both public and private programs vary greatly, and many, perhaps most, preschoolers are not taught by qualified teachers.
      This issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to exploring the need for, and benefits of, having skilled teachers during the first years of school, and to examining the promising practices and inadequacies of the current efforts to provide a quality education to all children during the first years of school.
      The prereading experience. We begin with neuroscientist Sally Shaywitz (p. 6), whose research using fMRI to image the brains of children and adults as they read has led to insights about the importance of preparing children for literacy. During ages 4–6, children build the neural systems that are responsible for fluent reading, she tells us, and this is the optimal time to teach phonemic awareness. In fact, if the child reaches 3rd grade before someone intervenes to correct a potentially serious reading problem, he or she may never attain the effortless word recognition that automatic readers take for granted.
      Harvard researcher Connie Juel and colleagues (p. 12) point out the extreme variance in the teaching of reading in kindergarten and 1st grade, with some classes spending 0 percent of the time on reading and writing activities and others spending up to 75 percent on letter-sound recognition alone. Their evaluation of 200 students in six schools highlights “anchored word instruction” as one of the most promising practices for building vocabulary. With researchers noting that a low-income 5-year-old entering kindergarten knows approximately 6,000 fewer words than a child from a middle-income family (p. 15), building vocabulary may be the next frontier for those concerned with teaching every child to read.
      Long-lasting social benefits. W. Steven Barnett and Jason T. Hustedt (p. 54) summarize the long-term outcomes of three outstanding preschool programs. Follow-up studies of the participants, now young adults, show that they are more likely to perform well on intelligence tests, pursue higher education, and get good jobs, and are less likely to be retained in grade or commit crimes (p. 55). These programs—the High/Scope Perry program, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers—had in common small class size, well-educated professional teachers who were compensated well, a strong curriculum, and parent involvement.
      How might we replicate these experiences for more children? The authors suggest that we explore options for revitalizing Head Start, including providing services to younger children, raising academic standards, requiring licensure for teachers, or merging Head Start funds with states funds to make universal preK a reality. They warn, though, that in our haste to reform Head Start, we must maintain or raise standards, rather than dismantle a program that has helped many families.
      Developmentally appropriate education. Learning, especially when young, is more likely to last if the learner is enjoying the experience, our authors emphasize. Robert C. Pianta and Karen La Paro (p. 24) provide evidence that assessment of readiness is not the biggest need in the formative years. Children are ready for school, they tell us, when, for a period of several years, they have been cared for by adults who are emotionally invested in them and when they have had a safe environment, regular routines, and stimulating materials.
      A quality learning experience is less about testing and more about consistency, but consistency does not mean uniformity. Our authors who describe the Reggio Emilia approach (p. 34 and p. 40) remind us that children have “a hundred languages” and develop uniquely.
      The message of all our authors is that the first years of school are as important for an educated population as any other period, perhaps more. We must improve the quality of teaching for the 100 percent of children whose early learning time may be the most valuable in their lifetime.
      End Notes

      1 Olson, L. (2002). Starting early. In Education Week. Quality Counts 2002: Building blocks for success: State efforts in early childhood education, 21(17), 10–22.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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