Kindergarten grabs center stage in debate on learning quality

The great quality-of-education debate appears to have gone full cycle, ending up where school usually starts: kindergarten. Armed with the conviction that good-quality education means more and earlier classroom instruction, educators and state legislators nationwide are pushing a number of new ideas for young learners:

* Creation of new kindergarten programs. By 1986 Mississippi will open the doors on its first public kindergarten system, part of a new comprehensive school reform law. In early September an Arkansas education commission called for the establishment of a statewide mandatory kindergarten program.

* Lengthening kindergarten from half day to full day. New York City's newly appointed schools chancellor, Anthony Alavarado, has moved quickly to extend kindergarten to a full day. Over 50,000 children are now in full-day kindergarten in New York City schools, up from 8,000 last year. Alabama, too, has made a monetary commitment to lengthening the kindergarten school day. The Legislature has boosted funding by over $8 million, most of which will be used to hire an additional 420 full time kindergarten teachers.

* Creation of ''transitional year'' programs. Rhode Island's state Board of Regents is considering the creation of a pre-first grade, mainly for children who haven't mastered reading. Such a program has existed in Maine since 1981 to benefit children with all types of special needs.

* Creation of pre-kindergarten programs. A number of individual school districts from Red Bank, N.J., to several towns in California have begun kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds instead of waiting until the traditional starting age of 5.

Some educators are hesitant to endorse the trend toward mandatory kindergarten for all children, advocating instead a flexible approach that would meet the needs of individual children. Says Edward Ziegler, director of Yale University's Bush Center for Child Development:

''Public schools are trying to be responsive to the changing demographics of the modern American family, that is, working mothers and so on. There is a tremendous need for child care, but rather than honestly saying that's what they're doing, (public schools) are saying that this is academically very important.

''Children are children - they get tired in the afternoon,'' he adds. ''Some kids aren't even ready for school (at age 5). I am convinced that many kids are turned off with the pressure and say the heck with it. It's a treacherous thing. There needs to be a flexible response. Let's have a half day of kindergarten and make even that voluntary if need be.''

Critics of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs complain that in some cases academics takes a back seat to the day-care function. And they argue that taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill for non-academic supervision. Others charge that such programs have little lasting benefit for well-adjusted children , helping instead only those with special needs.

In some cases, the value of kindergarten and transitional year programs is clear. ''You look at some of these kids and you just know they aren't mature enough to move along to first grade,'' says Candace Avery, a pre-first grade teacher in Augusta, Maine. ''The logistics of first grade become overwhelming for them. What we've done is to flip over from the standard practice. We're keeping them back more for social reasons than academic reasons. We're giving them what we call the gift of time.''

Maine educators believe that by delaying a child's entry into the first grade , where need be, they prevent nearly insoluble social problems from developing later. The program is also designed to end the practice of holding children back at virtually any point in their early education, should they begin to fall behind their classmates.

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