Next Great Debate: Care of Older Kids

At the school-age child-care center in a prosperous Midwestern suburb, the cars begin arriving at 6:30 a.m. Parents are dropping off their children on the way to work, and some of the children trooping into the building will be there for the next 12 hours. For an hour or more before school begins, these children, ages 5 to 11, will keep busy with group projects, games, and other activities. After school, sports, art projects, story time, and dramatic play will beguile these children until one by one their parents come to claim them.

Welcome to the world of school-age child care, where working-class, middle-class, and even wealthy parents vie for the services of generally low-paid and often marginally skilled workers. It's a world school districts are scrambling to catch up with, and which few of us in the academic discipline of education are ready for.

But ready or not, we must face what will surely be one of the biggest educational debates of the new millennium. School-age child care will engender debate because of the millions of families that are coming to depend an it, and because of the huge cost of delivering these programs and the question of who will pay.

The debate will also reveal the unspoken hierarchy existing among education professionals of all stripes. It's guiding principle is simple: Those who teach "harder" subjects are generally recognized and rewarded more than those who teach the "easier" ones, while those who only "take care" of children in settings less explicitly academic receive the least recognition of all. Workers in school-age child-care programs are at the bottom of the heap.

What are the services of child-care workers worth to society? We say that our children are important, and that therefore those who work with our children are important and deserve to receive decent compensation and recognition. Yet in the majority of cases those who provide school-age child care are paid only a dollar or two an hour more than fast food workers. Why?

There are several reasons, each of which reflect commonly held attitudes. First, the irregular hours of employment offered by many school-age child-care facilities discourage prospective employees from applying. The hourly wages offered are not high enough to compensate for the less-than-full-time schedule. This schedule also hampers professional development opportunities, such as workshops where those who work in school-age child care can share ideas and discuss problems. Working before and after the regular school day also isolates these workers from the rest of the school community, reducing contacts between them and their colleagues in the classroom.

More important, many believe that this work can be done without much formal training or knowledge. Yet if taking care of children is such a low-level activity, why are the shelves of our bookstores and libraries filled with books advising us how to raise our children? How do we square an attitude of indifference towards the qualifications of those who work in school-age child-care programs with the research showing that children are learning in well-run child-care settings? The social, affective, and cognitive development of children is promoted in the activities provided in the best school-age child-care settings. Yet we downplay these relationships, in part because school-age child care often is viewed as a service of generic quality provided by workers engaged in merely routine tasks.

Each of these factors has ramifications influencing the field of school-age child care. Inadequately trained and supported, marginalized by school administrators, and misunderstood by parents, many of these workers don't yet see themselves as professionals. They aren't yet fully aware of resources available to them, and they are frequently beset with feelings of being overwhelmed and alone on a difficult mission. High turnover and, until recently, the absence of a cadre of trained leaders in the field have exacerbated this situation.

The most profound ramification of the confusion over the place of school-age child care impacts not the adults, but the children themselves. In our post-industrial society, we seem not to know what to do with our children, and we have not always thought through the role we want school-age child care to play in our children's lives.

There are several ways to respond. On the most immediate level, to raise educational and professional standards would do no harm. Yet, alone, higher educational standards and even higher pay won't guarantee that the best people will be doing the best things for our children. First, we must decide whether school-age child care will follow the pattern established earlier in this century by elementary school teachers who gradually evolved from semi-skilled workers into a work force of college educated professionals.

Such decisions must involve parents and educators. The central importance and challenge of the work done in school-age child-care centers needs to be made clear to classroom teachers, parents, and school administrators who too frequently think of the local child-care program as a collection of baby-sitters.

Schools of education can help by instituting programs in the area of school-age child care. State boards of education can contribute expertise and provide recognition, as well as aid in the first important steps towards professionalization, if this is the course chosen. Yet the deepest question we must consider is, what do we want school-age child care to accomplish? Have we considered the possibilities, from bare bones baby-sitting to enriching programs that teach skills and provide experiences that children will carry with them their whole lives? And who do we want as guides for these experiences? The choice is entirely our own.

* Paul Shore is associate professor of educational studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

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