Lawmaker fights for early learning

Interview: Del. Mark K. Shriver discusses the value of pre-kindergarten instruction

Q and A

March 11, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In the General Assembly's debate over how best to ensure that children are prepared to learn how to read, Del. Mark K. Shriver has emerged as one of Annapolis' leading advocates.

The Montgomery County Democrat, in his second term, is sponsoring several bills this year aimed at helping young children, including pushing for more state funding for all-day kindergarten in local school systems.

And as co-chairman of the Assembly's Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families, Shriver has been holding hearings during the past year, looking at ways to improve the quality of education in public and private child care programs.

Last month, Shriver's committee participated in the Assembly's first-ever hearing on school readiness and how Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposal would affect the education of children from birth to age 5.

During the hearing, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick reported the results of Maryland's first survey on the readiness of children entering kindergarten. The state's teachers found that only two in five children are entering kindergarten fully prepared in areas such as language skills and social development.

The Sun spoke with Shriver last week about what's happening with early childhood education in the Assembly:

Why is it so important for the state to concentrate on educating children before they start the formal schooling of kindergarten?

I think that when you look at the numbers that came out of the [kindergarten] survey that showed that 60 percent of our kids entering kindergarten not ready to learn, you see a real potential crisis ... It's more than really potential, it's already there. ... What you're seeing already is that we're having to do a lot of remediation work to get them up so they're entering first, second and third grade prepared to learn.

The reading readiness, in particular, seemed troubling.

That was low. I think it was around 30 percent.

How do you define a child being ready for kindergarten? Some people, when they saw this survey, thought, "Of course kids aren't ready, that's why they're entering kindergarten." What is involved in helping kids to be ready for kindergarten?

There are a number of different indicators the state is looking at, from social development to cognitive development to emotional development to how well they know the language to how well they know letters and the alphabet to how they interact with each other.

I have a 3-year-old daughter. If she knows how to share, if she knows how to interact with other kids, that's all part of what it takes to be successful, not only in kindergarten and in school, but long-term in life. ... The lagging indicators on second- and third-grade test scores show that we have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars getting the kids that are having problems in second and third grade up to snuff when they're in seventh and eighth grade. ... We ought to invest up front. That's really an investment in our kids.

What kinds of investments should the state be making? What's on tap for next year? What do you envision for next year?

I think the governor deserves great credit. Two years ago, we didn't have an early childhood educational initiative. This year, he put $30 million in it, which is building on the $7 million that we had in [the budget] last year. So we're making progress. ...

I'm hopeful this is the foundation for a strong effort this year into next year and in the future. States like North Carolina spend upward of $250 million a year trying to improve the quality of care in the child care area, providing all-day kindergarten.

How important is all-day kindergarten?

Dr. Grasmick talks about the fact that if a kid comes into kindergarten and is not up to the skill level, then that child has a one-in-eight chance of succeeding in school. You're talking about kids that then end up getting placed in special education, kids that drop out of high school, kids that have problems in school, mental health issues. That's hundreds of millions of dollars in remediation.

What we're talking about on all-day kindergarten is if you give them that option ... you're really building the basics there for long-term growth. It is a $15 million commitment this year, potentially somewhere between $60 million and $70 million when it's fully implemented [over several years]. A progressive state like Maryland should be doing it.

With child care, it sounds like you're talking about changing the title from "child care worker" to "early childhood teacher."

That's exactly what those early childhood workers are doing. They are, with the parents of the kids, the first teachers that our children have. If child care workers are not supported and considered a real profession and a real professional ... then the teacher has to spend hours and hours doing remediation work. I think the data shows that, particularly with poor kids, if they get high-quality early childhood education, they'll enter kindergarten ready to learn. And it'll get them on an even playing field with their peers across the state and you won't have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. So making sure that child care workers are seen as really child care educators, child educators, is critically important. It's a changing of the language. It used to be day care. Then it was perceived as child care. Now, it's really child educators.

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