Early Childhood Education
National Education Goals Panel (NEGP)
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush and the Nation’s Governors announced six national education goals and a National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) composed of policy leaders was established to monitor the nation’s progress in meeting the goals. Fostered by concern that the nation’s educational progress was not meeting international standards and by a movement toward greater accountability, the goals were designed to uplift American education and to give focus to areas of needed progress. Indeed, the goals were widely publicized and served as the foundation for President Bill Clinton’s and Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s Goals 2000 legislation.
The first of these goals—“By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn” (Department of Education, 1995)—visibily moved school readiness and early childhood education onto the national agenda. Although Head Start and other early childhood programs had been in place for decades, with the advent of the goals a new national recognition of the importance of children’s early experiences to their later school success was legitimated. For the first time, national goals firmly linked early childhood to kindergarten through grade twelve education. Adding further weight and visibility to the readiness work, structural mechanisms like the Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups were formed to carry out the NEGP’s charges surrounding readiness. The Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups made four primary contributions to the school readiness debate: (1) advancing readiness as a condition of individuals and institutions; (2) focusing on the conditions needed for children to be ready for school; (3) discerning the dimensions that constitute school readiness; and (4) highlighting the critical role of schools in school readiness.
Readiness as a Condition of Individuals and Institutions
Irrespective of whether the renewed focus was on readiness for school or readiness to learn, historically the onus for readiness was placed primarily on the child. To counter this view, the NEGP Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups adopted a broadened conceptualization of readiness, in which readiness is regarded as a condition of institutions and individuals. This conceptualization interpreted readiness as the match between the readiness of the child and the readiness of the environments that serve young children. This more contemporary understanding of readiness acknowledged that the sources of readiness are not only the child’s emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and social abilities, but also the contexts in which children live and interact with adults, teachers, and other community members. To impact a child’s school readiness, therefore, multiple contexts including families, schools, neighborhoods, and early childhood settings must be involved.
Given this orientation, it is not surprising that a second contribution of the Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups was to focus on the array of contextual conditions necessary for children to be ready for school. Aided by the goals themselves, the Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups sought to build on the following three objectives that accompanied the goals.
(1) All children will have access to high-quality and developmentally appropriate preschool programs that help prepare children for school;
(2) Every parent in the United States will be a child’s first teacher and devote time each day to helping each parent’s preschool children learn, and parents will have access to the training and support parents need; and
(3) Children will receive the nutrition, physical activity experiences, and health care needed to arrive at school with healthy minds and bodies, and to maintain the mental alertness necessary to be prepared to learn, and the number of low-birth- weight babies will be significantly reduced through enhanced prenatal health systems.
Using these objectives, data were collected to measure the nation’s progress in creating opportunities for young children to develop and thrive, prior to school entry. This emphasis shifted the focus to include inputs as well as child outcomes as measures of readiness.
The Dimensions of School Readiness
A third contribution of the work of the Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups was to clearly specify the elements or dimensions of school readiness. The Goal 1 Technical Planning Group Report on Reconceptualizing Children’s Early Learning and Development, after reviewing and synthesizing decades of research, offered a conceptualization that recognized the wide range of abilities and experiences upon which early learning and development rests. Their work, now widely accepted and used, suggests that early development and learning embraces five dimensions: (1) physical well-being and motor development, (2) social and emotional development, (3) approaches toward learning, (4) language development, and (5) cognition and general knowledge (National Education Goals Panel, 1991). Conceptualized by an expert panel for use in policymaking, this work offered a solid definition of school readiness and its underlying dimensions.
School’s Role in Readiness
Given the importance of focusing on learning contexts and the institutions that impact early learning, the Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Group also sought to define precisely what was meant by a “ready school.” This emphasis was a necessary response to the increasingly common call for children to be ready for schools and schools to be ready for children. To clarify this call for ready schools, the NEGP convened a Ready Schools Resource Group who, drawing on previous work defining successful practices for elementary schools, identified keys to ready schools (Shore, 1998). Properties of ready schools include: smoothing the transition from home to school; striving for continuity between early care and education programs and elementary schools; helping children make sense of their worlds; fostering a full commitment to the success of every child and teacher; using approaches that have been proven to raise achievement along with a focus on results; and underscoring the fact that schools are part of communities.
Further Readings: Kagan, S. L. (1992). Readiness, past, present, and future: Shaping the agenda. Young Children 48(1), 48-53; Lewit, E. M., and L. S. Baker (1995). School readiness. The Future of Children 5(2), 128-139; National Education Goals Panel (1991). Goal 1 Technical Planning Group Report on School Readiness. Washington, DC: NEGP, pp. 10-11; Shore, R. (1998). Ready schools. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel; U.S. Department of Education (1991). America 2000: An education strategy. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education; U.S. Department of Education (1995). Goals 2000: A progress report Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Sharon Lynn Kagan