Preschool age continues to drop

The Education Beat

Skills: Policy-makers are pushing the timeline for learning the basics earlier

a new report proposes literacy instruction for Baltimore's neediest 2-year-olds.

June 25, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S LIKE the limbo chant: How low will they go?

Michael E. Hickey, retiring after 16 years as Howard County superintendent, says the top item on his list of unfinished business is countywide schooling for 4-year-olds.

To the south, Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast enlists county Head Start operators in an effort to instruct poor children long before they enter his public schools.

Baltimore City will spend $640,000 to reach 288 low-income preschoolers this fall. The city's eventual goal is to expand from the 11 schools in the pilot to all 121 elementary schools.

And now comes a report urging Baltimore to consider literacy instruction - let's not call it reading at this tender age - for the city's neediest 2-year-olds.

All of these developments demonstrate the sea change in attitudes about when it's appropriate to begin instruction in the basic skills. Educators and policy-makers no longer apologize for starting too young. Learning to read begins at birth, says the Baltimore report, "The Untapped Potential of Baltimore City Public Preschools," issued last week by the Abell Foundation.

A little more than half of American families send children to preschool, either to Head Start for the poor, or to private schools for better-off families. We spend about $11 billion a year on programs targeted to poor families, and we reach roughly half of those eligible.

By contrast, France spends the equivalent of $7 billion yearly on voluntary public preschools, with almost universal participation.

The Abell report draws a sharp contrast between the French approach and that of Baltimore Head Start. That agency and city public schools (using state and federal funds) enroll about 5,100 children who are 4 years old and 1,400 who are 3 years old, spending $32 million a year.

In France, even with a large underclass of North African immigrants and Gypsy families, the report says, "preschools achieve what should be the envy of an American school system, substantially narrowing the achievement gap between rich and poor. ... Long before Baltimore's poor children start school, their French counterparts can sing and recite familiar songs, nursery rhymes and poems. They learn early how to hold a book and pretend to read the words under the picture, an important signal that they understand the function of print."

French preschool teachers, most of whom have master's degrees, spend up to an hour a day working with a class, "far more than the 15 minutes a day recommended in Head Start preschools," the report says.

Studies of the French system show that the more time children spend in preschool, the less likely they are to repeat a grade. Moreover, the gains are lasting; they are more impressive in the fifth grade than in the first.

As for Baltimore's Head Start program, "There is no evidence that it either produces measurable academic results for the city's poor children or that it even sees itself accountable for doing so. ... Head Start is in fact primarily a social service agency, operating under the city's Department of Housing and Community Development."

The 35-year-old Head Start, one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's original Great Society programs, has been criticized for not producing long-term cognitive gains (although it has studies that prove its effectiveness). There's pressure from Congress and elsewhere to put more emphasis on learning in Head Start, but the head of the program's national support group says these critics "don't understand how a child learns.

"Head Start was never intended to be a pure instructional program," says Sarah Greene, executive director of the Head Start Association. "It has to concentrate on the development of the whole child and the whole family. It has to be comprehensive, to deal with health needs, nutritional needs, family services."

It might be added that many Head Start critics are affluent enough to afford private preschools, and many of them insist that their children be reading by 5 - or even earlier.

Among six recommendations, the Abell report urges city leaders to consider "shifting children's intellectual development to front and center," to begin "a concerted effort to provide preschool to all poor children who are 2, 3 and 4 years old" and to "implement a citywide preschool curriculum that establishes specific, measurable expectations for a child's development."

That's a tall, and expensive, order, but city policy-makers might experiment with a group of young children, monitor their progress and determine whether education is indeed the way out of poverty.

The benefits of preschool

Researchers in France have found that students who attend preschool are less likely to repeat a grade than those with no preschool experience.

Years of preschool attendance

Percentage that repeated a grade

3 years 10.0 percent

2 years 14.5 percent

1 year 18.3 percent

No years 30.5 percent

Source: "The Untapped Potential of Baltimore City Public Preschools," Abell Foundation

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