Should 4- and 5-year-olds be in school? No, youngsters need care, not schooling

Prof. Edward Zigler of Yale's Child Study Center is also director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. THERE has been a call in recent years for universal preschool education, usually described in such attractive terms as ``developmentally appropriate'' and ``optional.''

At least five states have made kindergarten compulsory, and pressure is growing for other states to do the same. The Connecticut Commissioner of Education and the Mayor of New York City want to lower from six to four the age at which children are required to start school. A recent New York Times editorial hailed Mayor Koch's initiative as the only way to ``save the next generation.''

So many voices have risen in support of early schooling that one might well assume that child development specialists are unanimous in their approval. This is far from the case. Public schooling for four-year-olds may fulfill many needs for the politicians and educators who are proposing it, but it is not in the bestinterests of children. With both parents at work in four out of five families, what children need is high quality child care, not school.

For one thing, the few programs on which the enormous claims for early schooling are based involved only economically disadvantaged children. They included health care, social services, significant parent participation, and small (6 to 1) child/caregiver ratios, -- features not found in the standard school curriculum.

To conclude from these few programs that preschool is appropriate for all four-year-olds would be a serious mistake. It is highly unlikely that the public schools would be able to duplicate these conditions on a large scale, nor would most children benefit from them. Given the pressures today to push children ahead, schools are more likely to move in the opposite direction, extending a first-grade curriculum into the nursery, where few children are ready for it.

Moreover, years of research have demonstrated that middle-class children, the bulk of the school population, derive little educational benefit from preschool. Yet, if the public schools offer preschool, even on a purely voluntary basis, this will imply the sanction of government and child development specialists. Many conscientious parents, uncertain how best to raise their children in our rapidly changing society, will feel obligated to place their youngsters under the care of ``experts.'' The result would be to hamper rather than to enhance learning in the long run.

Parents may ask, ``But isn't any kind of preschool better than staying home?''

A number of studies indicate that it is not. The most recent, by British researchers Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes, suggests that the homecan be the richest, most powerful source of development for children of all but the most deprived backgrounds.

The authors demonstrate that preschools tend to be tame, inert settings that keep children quiet and orderly, and where adults are too busy and too emotionally distant from the children to engage them in the kind of intimate and informative conversations that are common between parents and young children in the home.

Why, then, the current impetus for earlier schooling?

The most pressing source of the present controversy is the urgent need of working parents for someone to take care of their children. But day care is one thing; schooling is another. Given the overemphasis on cognitive learning in the schools today, there is danger that first-grade curricula will be imposed on children in kindergartens and preschool.

Even those who look to the school room for child care while they work are likely to be disappointed. The extended hours of ``all-day'' kindergartens -- which go from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. --fail to meet the 8-to-6 needs of working families.

Good child care is a necessity, and that's the issue we must address.

The recent move of the New York City public schools' to provide care to ``latchkey'' children is a step in the right direction. A more complete solution would be a return to the concept of the community school, common in this country in the 1930s. Such schools served as social service centers for the entire community. Today those schools could provide optional, full-day child care for four- and even three-year-old children under personnel specifically trained to work with children of this age, such as child development associates [See related article Page. B12]. The programs would provide self-directed play and socialization -- the real business of preschoolers. They would not subject small children to pressures they aren't ready for.

Finally, let us not overlook the five-year-olds. I believe a full day of kindergarten -- which many educators advocate -- is too demanding for these children. Instead, I propose a half day of kindergarten, staffed by teachers, followed by a half day of in-school day-care, staffed by Child Development Associates. Such child care would be strictly voluntary; no parents or guardians who wanted their children at home and could meet their needs would be denied the opportunity to do so. Our young children do have a place in the school room, but that place is not at a desk.

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