The American family has been in the midst of a radical transformation over the past two decades and this change needs to be considered when one is looking at educational change. Today less than 20% of American families are of the "traditional" model of male breadwinner, full-time female homemaker and at least one child under 18.
The average child has a substantial portion of her or his intellect shaped in the first five years of life, yet too often in the debate over educational change, this fact is lost. A substantially large percentage of children now spend their lives before kindergarten, many starting in infancy, with a substitute caregiver - a babysitter, family day care home or child care center. The quality of this care can have an enormous impact on the child's ability to learn and problem-solve. We have to go beyond giving lip service to the need for more funding for programs such as Head Start, and closely examine the importance of this care.
Long-term studies have shown that children who have high-quality educational experiences early are more likely to succeed later — both in school and in life in general. Related to this success are age-related activities that prepare children for learning without burning them out with increased academic and parental involvement.
The primary focus of the preschool experience should be to help children develop a positive self-concept and an eagerness to learn and explore. Yet frequently, this is not the case. Instead, preschoolers are expected to perform according to standards that are more realistic for first and second-graders. Child care teachers pass this off as a result of parent and elementary school expectations. Elementary school teachers expect more of preschool children because testing is the norm against which success is measured. If children do not come to school knowing their ABC's and numbers (regardless of whether they have any meaning to them!) they are already seen as failures; their self-esteem is of secondary importance, if it is important at all.
We cannot separate our education policy from our family policy — the two are intertwined and growing ever more so with each passing year. For many families the choice of substitute care is, sadly enough, made on economic grounds. A good child care program costs money. Families under the greatest stress have been found to be more likely to enroll their children in low-quality child care.
To address these issues, government and business need pressure from parents and all those interested in genuine reform. It is not enough to mouth commitment to family values every time an election rolls around. It is not fair to expect parents to pay the full cost of high-quality child care when all in our society benefit. But how do we value our future? Child care work is so devalued that it is not uncommon to find that caregivers leave low-paying child care for jobs in fast-food restaurants where they make more money!
In fact, 40% of child care center staff and 60% of family home care providers leave child care each year. How much longer can our society wait before realizing that what is occurring in the first five years of life can have drastic impact — for better or worse — on what happens once children enter the educational system? We must include programs for young children and their families in all discussions of educational change. Such programs for children need to be based on established research which shows what works: programs with caregivers trained and knowledgeable in the developmental process of the young child, who assist children in learning at their own individual speed and style, and respect and value parents as partners.
In the words of the African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child." We must all shoulder the responsibility for the next generation to give them the opportunities their future will require.