ONCE upon a time children started school at age 5, if they attended kindergarten, or age 6, if they started in first grade. But this fall, millions of three- and four-year-olds will begin their school experiences in public and private preschool programs across the United States. In the past 25 years, the percentage of three- and four-year-olds attending school in the US has quadrupled. Thirty-nine percent now enroll in school; in 1965, only 10 percent of youngsters that age went to school.
And the number of three- and four-year-olds in school is expected to quadruple again by 1995, according to Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).
``Accommodating our youngest children is perhaps the greatest challenge for educators in this decade,'' according to Dr. Sava.
Fifty-five percent of mothers with preschool-age children now work outside the home, according to the Census Bureau, which expects the percentage to continue growing.
``As more and more women go into the work force, the need for having children cared for outside the home is greater,'' says David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and author of ``Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk.''
At the same time, public recognition of the value of early-childhood education has increased over the past two decades, says Barbara Willer at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
This is partly attributable to the success of such federal initiatives as Head Start, which has provided preschool education to low-income children for the past 25 years. ``The legacy of Head Start is that we've learned that children are capable of learning much more, much sooner than we thought,'' Ms. Willer says.
The education reform movement, which swept across the US in the 1980s, brought a wave of heightened expectations for academic performance.
``We are living in a time now when we no longer see children as innocent but as competent,'' Dr. Elkin says. ``That could be OK as long as we don't just extend downward the schooling of the elementary school....''
Debate over the type of schooling appropriate for young children is not new. But with the increased enrollment of preschool youngsters, the issue has taken on renewed interest for both parents and educators.
State support for prekindergarten programs is on the increase, according to the Education Commission of the States. Before 1980, only eight states funded prekindergarten programs other than Head Start. By 1988, 24 states had legislation to fund prekindergarten programs.
NAESP's Sava cites four major reasons for the increasing numbers of young children entering schools:
An increase in birth rates: ``Baby boomers'' of the '50s and '60s are the parents of the '90s.
Need for child care among two-income or single-parent families.
Pressure from parents and educators for early academic achievement.
Evidence that preschool education is beneficial for children.
Lizzie Parrie, a mother in Covington, La., has had both her children in school since they were 3. ``They could stay home with me,'' says Mrs. Parrie, who does not work outside the home. But she says the group activity they get at preschool is something she could not provide at home. ``They have jobs to do at school,'' Parrie says, adding that while they have jobs at home, they learn to work with others at school.
Parents like Parrie are most concerned about the learning environment a school provides. NAESP recently released a publication outlining the standards for quality early-education programs. ``What's happened in a number of cases,'' Sava says, ``is that individual school systems have taken the kindergarten curriculum or the first-grade curriculum and they've watered it down and begun to use the program for three- and four-year-olds.''
``I don't think there is a disagreement about ultimate goals here,'' says Tom Schultz at the National Association of State Boards of Education. ``Everybody is interested in children being successful in school....''
The disagreement is over what kind of early experiences lead to later academic success. Sava of NAESP speaks of ``a tragic misunderstanding'' resulting from the current push for strengthened education. ``There is a false assumption that the earlier children are exposed to the formal academic environment of reading, writing, and arithmetic, the better off they're going to be later on as they attempt to enter college, for example,'' he says.
Helen Carmichael, director of The Branch School, a private school for young children in Houston, sees evidence of increased pressure on young children. ``Parents are wanting their children to be pushed more and more,'' she says. Rather than focusing on their social and emotional development, some parents emphasize intellectual development for their young children, Carmichael says.
ALTHOUGH education experts agree that young children are best served through unstructured, free play that promotes creativity and exploration, the emphasis on improved test scores has prompted some schools and parents to accelerate the learning process.
Some preschool programs are introducing work sheets and formal instruction. ``Children are not really symbolically oriented,'' Elkind says. He suggests the use of hands-on activities that emphasize sensory exploration rather than worksheets with instructions to color within the lines.
The adverse effects of outlining what children should know and do at an early age are significant, say education experts. ``As adults we set up these standards and we begin to give children the impression that they failed at the ages of 3, 4, and 5 because they could not get into some hot-shot preschool center,'' Sava says.
As an antidote to social decay and the need for child care, the common age for school entry in the US may eventually become 3 or 4, predicts Sava.
France currently enroll 95 percent of their three- and four-year-olds in schools, he points out. But US schools are not prepared for such a change. ``We really don't have the proper facilities or the necessary trained staff to educate young children,'' he says. ``A special environment needs to be developed for young children.'' All this would ``require a commitment of dollars,'' Sava says.
But, according to professor Elkind, ``it is certainly an investment that would pay back many fold in terms of getting children on the right track, giving them a right start educationally and socially.''