Today's parents, teachers redefine 'elementary'

Whether it's the affluent community of Palo Alto in California's Silicon Valley, an inner-city housing project in Cleveland, or a small town in rural Utah, communities across the nation are forging a new consensus on early grade- school education.

Parents, teachers, and education policymakers in all regions agree that:

* Kindergarten and first-grade classes should offer much more in the way of cognitive skill training - the development of abstract reasoning - than ever before.

* In the early school years, parental involvement is the critical factor in preparing a child for a life of learning.

* Despite both of the above, a child has a right to be a child and shouldn't be hurried.

Much like current efforts to redefine a core curriculum in the nation's high schools, a thorough reexamination of sound instruction for the early grades is under way. But the reform effort in the early grades, largely unnoticed due to a flurry of reports on secondary education, has a distinct advantage over its counterpart in the high school.

Elementary education has a record of steady and substantial progress over the last 10 years. Expectations about what young children can learn and do have exploded.

What's routinely being taught to kindergarten children today is what was taught to a first-grader a school generation ago. Instruction now builds on a conscious move, in kindergarten, away from mere socialization and toward reading.

No longer does the idea - ''learning how to learn'' - apply solely to the high school or university student. Young children, if they haven't already been introduced to this concept in preschool, meet it early on in kindergarten or first grade.

And larger societal forces will continue to push elementary schools in this direction. From 1965 to 1980 preschool enrollment of three- and four-year-olds tripled. Such growth is expected to continue. With it will necessarily come a ratcheting upward of academic standards for the 4 million children, the babies of the baby-boom generation, set to enter elementary classrooms through the end of this decade.

For many young, upwardly mobile parents living in metropolitan areas the decision about which preschool for their child, not whether to attend one, is the challenge. Well-educated themselves, they often view enrolling their children in such schools as a necessary part of parenting.

Many feel they would be doing their child a disservice by not providing a leg up in the lifelong learning they know to be so essential. For some parents the commitment to early education has become part of a parent's legacy to a child.

Nevertheless, the move toward increased formal learning in the early years is not without its pitfalls. The difficult question of just when schooling should begin and, once begun, how fast the academic pace should be, remains unanswered.

''The parents' and teachers' roles are not just to teach children, but to be eclectic, to include the academic and social skills, the language and cognitive skills, the physical and coordination skills,'' says Betty Rogaway, a specialist in early childhood education. More important to learning than any of these, though, is a sense of self-identity and self-esteem, she says.

Even the staunchest supporters of early education caution parents about pushing a child too fast. Doing so might prove even more harmful to the long-term interests of a child than holding too limited an expectation about a child's learning abilities, they say.

''See how well a child functions when the teacher isn't right there giving directions,'' says Pat Robinson, a first-grade teacher at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto.

''If there is a sense of quiet, constructive order and purposeful activity, a sense of confidence in the child's knowing what he or she should be doing when the teacher isn't right there, that's a pretty sure sign of a well-run classroom , a child learning at an appropriate pace.''

Historically, age has been the primary criterion for learning readiness. Overwhelmingly, it is still the single most used factor for when a child begins school.

''Encouragingly, more and more we see the efforts (at early schooling) will be child centered,'' says Jim Mathiott, a Palo Alto elementary school principal. Whether it's the academic skill of understanding the sequence of a story, or the social skill of lining up to go to the bathroom, the child as a unique individual is where the emphasis must be placed, he says.

Mississippi and Alabama, states that formerly shied away from kindergarten classes, made them a requirement in recent education-reform proposals. New York State Commissioner of Education Gordan Ambach proposed recently that formal schooling begin at age four. New York City, in establishing citywide all-day kindergarten classes this year, found itself oversubscribed by 50,000 students.

One 1981 study tracked the progress of Head Start children (a federally funded preschool program for low income children) from ages 3 to 15. Conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Mich., the study conclusively demonstrated the long-term benefits from early Head Start education.

Richard R. Green, superintendent of public schools in Minneapolis, sees his school system as typical of what will be happening nationwide for the rest of this decade. In the next five years each new kindergarten class will be the biggest class in the 37,000 student district.

''In the early grades, every dollar spent on the students who need help the most, low income and minority students especially, pays the greatest return in terms of future education. Every dollar not spent increases the future societal cost,'' says Superintendent Green.

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