Its effect on academic performance

MORE and more youngsters are entering school out of a group-day-care environment, rather than the intimacy of the home. What, if anything, does this mean for their performance in the classroom? If the children come from low-income families in cities, it could mean that they stay in school longer and have less need of remedial ``special education'' programs.

That was the clear indication of a study conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich. High/Scope's researchers followed children over a period of 22 years, comparing those who had the benefit of a model Head Start preschool program with those who did not have this advantage.

Their findings have been seized by many as evidence that a preschool group experience could probably benefit most children. But the majority of experts in the child-care field would challenge this, pointing out that the program studied by High/Scope was not typical of most Head Start programs, much less the average day-care facility.

This matter of definitions -- what kind of program and, just as important, what kind of children -- is central to any discussion of the effect of day care on intellectual development.

For poor children, says Leslie Isler of the family and consumer department of Wayne State University in Detroit, ``you probably can generalize'' from the High/Scope study. ``Most research seems to indicate that a quality day-care setting will have beneficial effects for any kids from a similar background.'' In essence, she explains, day care can provide the intellectual stimulation -- through books, learning-skill activities, and the like -- that may be lacking in the child's home.

Ron Haskins goes a little further, asserting that, in his view, low-income children who attend a day-care center with an ``organized curriculum'' may show a jump in IQ of from five to eight points. Dr. Haskins was until recently associate director of the Bush Institute for Child and Family Policy at the University of North Carolina; he's now a congressional science fellow in Washington, D.C.

Haskins is quick to add, however, that even children who experience a clear academic boost from day care are likely to lose that edge as they move through the early grades. Many of the scholars contacted point out that the High/Scope findings indicated essentially that the Head Start children tended to keep up better in school and generally had a more positive attitude toward life. There was no enduring effect on either grades or IQ.

Lawrence Schweinhart, a member of the High/Scope staff, emphasizes, however, that it's ``very important to give kids whatever help we can.'' He contends that the savings in special education alone more than repay the costs of a preschool program like the one his organization studied.

And what about middle-class youngsters in the suburbs? Is there any evidence that day care gives them a boost in school?

Middle-class children often reach certain academic levels -- for example, basic reading or counting skills -- earlier because of their experience in day care, notes Alison Clarke-Stewart of the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. But ``home-care kids soon catch up,'' she says. ``If there's any carryover, it's generally gone by the end of the first grade.''

Jerome Kagan, an education professor at Harvard, underscores the point about the need to be clear about the kind of day care under discussion.

``First, the day care has to be of good quality, and about 50 to 60 percent probably is,'' he says, but even then the effect on children as they enter school is likely to be minimal, in his view. From his research, including a field study in the Boston area, ``it looks like for the average child it doesn't make much difference. For 10 percent it might be good; for 10 percent it might be bad.''

In the area of academic development as well as social behavior, one thing to keep in mind is that much of the research to date has been designed to prove that day care does not harm children, says Bettye Caldwell, a University of Arkansas education professor and an observer and practitioner of day care for more than 40 years. The lack of hard evidence of ``some advantages'' to children from day care might be traceable to this ``negative approach'' taken by researchers, she suggests.

In any case, findings so far concerning school performance are hardly conclusive, either for or against day care. Many scholars point out that further research, ideally tracking children from a variety of backgrounds through their school careers, is needed. Even so, it's probably safe to observe, with Dr. Clarke-Stewart, that parents who are ``hoping their kids will get A's and B's'' because of day care will likely be disappointed.

First of three articles. Thursday: the effect of day care on social behavior.

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