PREpared for success
Wider access to preschool will help more kids succeed in later grades, according to a growing chorus of advocates
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Mr. Westervelt hopes the rating system will boost the quality of facilities. "In my judgment, it's the consumer-information piece which creates demand and public support, which politicians need in order to take action to build the financing system," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Early-childhood education advocates agree that uncertainty about what a good learning environment should look like can be a big barrier. But experts say the most important, and frequently neglected, things are often very simple, and can be easily integrated into games and play:
exposure to varied vocabulary, letting children tell stories, encouraging curiosity.
Joanne Brady, director of the Center for Children and Families at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., offers an example: Four children, after noticing a post office on a walk, decided to create their own. Their teacher encouraged them, providing a mock post office and videotaping the drama.
Soon, the toddlers were correcting each other: "No, if you give me the letter, you have to give me the money." The teacher helped them talk about what happens in a post office what a stamp is, for instance, and how much money it represents. "You have a discussion about currency and equivalency, and soon there's play money and mathematics, and role definition, and then a bank springs up next to the post office," says Ms. Brady. "So learning does not have to be heavy-handed, but it does need to be intentional."
But access to quality programs is a tough issue. Unlike many European countries, the United States provides little public money for children before age 5. The federally funded Head Start program has received high praise, but is available only to families who meet federal poverty guidelines. That standard counts out millions of families who still struggle to meet basic needs.
While many laud President Bush's interest in early learning, critics note that he hasn't backed up his proposals with funding, and suggest that his goal to "leave no child behind" would be better served if he expanded Head Start eligibility. "[Of] our 500,000 kids [in Head Start] who enter kindergarten each year, the vast majority enter with the right skills," says Sarah Greene, executive director of the National Head Start Association. "But almost 4 million kids are entering kindergarten yearly."
Lately, a growing number of leaders, including American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman and the Committee for Economic Development, an influential coalition of business and education leaders, have called for universal, publicly funded preschool. A few states, including Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma, are moving toward a universal pre-K system.
Westervelt would like to see a financing system that takes higher education's example with scholarships, subsidies, tax credits, grants, and loans. Mr. Simpson of the NAEYC suggests that corporations, which he says cover about 1 percent of child-care costs, should take on more of the burden.
"We know what we need to do to improve quality," he says, "and we know we can't do it on the backs of parents and families. Everyone else who benefits businesses, communities needs to recognize that because we benefit, we need to contribute."
With child-care providers typically earning less than $8 an hour and receiving little or no training, research has shown that they often don't do enough to prepare children for school.