Ready, Set, Learn

`BY the year 2000, all children will start school ready to learn.'' So states one of the national goals drafted by President Bush and the United States governors in the aftermath of last year's education summit. In the context of this goal, how do parents, educators, and politicians make sure that young children entering school - more and more of whom are three- and four-year-olds - are ``ready to learn''?

``If we are serious [about this goal], we must recognize that there are major social changes that have taken place in our society,'' says Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. In fact, 3.2 million mothers now work outside the home, according to the US Census Bureau, which predicts that 80 percent of all children under 6 will have mothers working outside the home by 1995.

The effort to provide school readiness is undermined by socioeconomic differences. ``Poverty is putting kids behind even before they enter school,'' says Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a 75,000-member organization based in Washington.

Some educators and scholars suggest that the national goal is misguided. ``I think readiness is the wrong concept because that sounds like readiness is something in the child,'' says David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. ``Readiness is never the child; readiness is the relationship between the child and the school.''

Dr. Elkind and early-education experts call for modification of the schools rather than attempting to change the children. ``We should be getting the schools ready for children, not children ready for schools,'' Elkind says. ``It's much easier to change schools than it is to change children.''

Part of the ``readiness'' issue involves addressing basic inequities so that children are able to enter school on an even keel. This involves basic nutrition and other needs.

But the difficulty is in coming up with a standard definition of ``school readiness.'' ``We're trying to define something that is fundamentally at odds with childhood development,'' Ms. Willer says. ``Development is individual; it is normal to have a wide variation of abilities.''

``The intent of a school is to take a youngster from where he or she is,'' Dr. Sava says, ``identify their needs, and then help them achieve their dreams.''

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