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 V.13 No.40 | September 30 - October 6, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

Early Childhood Needs Public Scrutiny

Governor's plan should be viewed as a first step in a long journey

Behind the scenes, far from the public's view, a battle is being waged with great consequences over early childhood education in New Mexico.

Gov. Bill Richardson will soon announce his plan, which includes naming which state agency, either the Department of Education or Department of Children, Youth and Families, will be made responsible.

Of course, we like to believe that people of good will can always reconcile differences, if they are strongly motivated to find common ground. But since this battle has been taking place beneath a virtual code of silence, instead of trying to influence the public, the battle has been over the heart and mind of Gov. Richardson alone.

That topdown approach may produce the illusion of agreement. But until all the discordant voices are heard and the full slate of stakeholders with an interest in what happens to New Mexico's preschool-age kids buys in, the superficial illusion of agreement will only make it harder for parents and teachers to accept a standardized plan.

Earlier this week the governor was scheduled to announce his "State Plan for Early Childhood Education." I'm writing this before his Monday morning press conference takes place, so I don't know which department he will choose.

Will he announce that he's decided that the public school systems in our state should also be responsible for educating our 2- to 4-year-olds, or will he acknowledge and support the existing network of families and preschool programs, public and private, that currently serve those ages?

In fact, it probably doesn't matter which system got his blessing this week. The issue is so involved (and potentially so divisive) that no executive decree can resolve the issue. The plan will be just the first public proposal launched in a struggle whose final outcome will emerge only gradually.

So deeply held are our values concerning the earliest years of a child's life that we absolutely have to reach agreement on the issue out in the open, with complete honesty and candor, not behind closed doors. This has to be argued passionately, examined with a magnifying glass and thoroughly weighed. There can be no easy agreement about something this critical.

No politically mandated decision can determine what is best for all preschool children in the state. A workable plan will be one that emerges after state officials carefully consider all relevant information about how kids learn best, how adults best nurture that learning and how our increasingly scarce tax dollars should be allocated to assist early childhood development.

That being said, I'd like to offer a few prejudiced thoughts on the subject, my own musings offered as background during the debate.

A child doesn't require the presence of an "educator" for learning to occur. Much of the most important information we ever learn takes place outside a classroom and involves the use of our senses, not approved textbooks.

The human being is "ready" for different kinds of learning at different points in the person's development. A child can only learn something when it is developmentally ready for it. In other words, until a child is sufficiently developed emotionally and socially, intellectual development will lag.

The experience so far that we have had with incorporating kindergarten (5-year olds) into public school settings in New Mexico is mixed. There are not enough trained teachers for that age group to meet the demand, and substituting seventh grade health educators or fifth grade physical education teachers into kindergarten classes is not working well.

Many children learn to read "spontaneously" without being "taught" to do so. When they are interested and their brains are developed enough, it can happen.

Families are not rivals to teachers for their children's hearts. Families are not untrained amateurs or unpaid volunteers in the learning process, second-rate fill-ins for teachers. They are the first and best educators of children.

Preschool years are when the child's basic orientation toward life, learning and the world are shaped. It is incredibly difficult to relearn those early lessons if they are not learned at the right time in life.

All of which leads me to conclude that children aged 2 to 4 should not be sent to public schools for formal classroom instruction. It would be far wiser for us to do everything possible to provide relaxed, supportive, small-scale settings where these youngsters can prepare to learn. When they are well-prepared they learn easily, rapidly, joyously. But we can waste a lot of money and do a lot of damage if we ignore the truth that a child's developmental journey cannot be rushed into a standardized classroom.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. Email jerry@alibi.com

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