Bill 14-261 would compel children who are three years old or who will be three by December 31 to be enrolled in school. Current law requires parents to enroll children who will be five years old by December 31. Proponents believe that lowering the compulsory school age will ensure children enter kindergarten or the first grade ready to learn. Having mastered basic pre-reading and pre-math skills, these children will have less difficulty becoming literate and numerate in elementary school. They will continue to maintain early gains, achieve at grade level, and graduate.
Unfortunately, lowering the compulsory school age to 2 and 2/3 is unlikely to yield these outcomes and could even have a negative impact. Washington D.C. already has the lowest compulsory attendance age in the country. Only three states and the District of Columbia offer universal preschool for all four-year-olds, in addition to other early-care programs. The District has one of the largest per capita investments in early childhood programs. But this substantial investment has yet to produce gains in children's academic performance.
DC continues to lag behind the states in achievement. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the District's academic performance is among the worst in the nation. Only six percent of D.C.'s fourth and eighth graders were proficient on the 2000 mathematics assessment. Over 75 percent of fourth and eighth graders lacked basic mastery of the subject. Proficiency rates in other subjects were also dismal.
The lack of positive outcomes for early childhood investments is not uncommon. Similar programs such as Head Start, a multi-billion dollar a year federal early childhood program, have not produced the long-term gains in cognitive development or achievement promised by proponents. Since 1965, taxpayers have spent over $30 billion on Head Start to provide comprehensive health, social, educational, and mental health services to disadvantaged students.
On average, children graduate from Head Start programs knowing only one or two letters of the alphabet. Furthermore, the gains in cognitive abilities that were made through these programs tend to fade away by the 2nd grade. At that point, the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants are indistinguishable from their nonparticipating peers.
Twenty-two years after its creation, Head Start co-founder Edward Zigler acknowledged that "we simply cannot inoculate children in one year against the ravages of a life of deprivation…. Then, as now, the arguments in favor of preschool education were that it would reduce school failure, lower dropout rates, increase test scores, and produce a generation of more competent high school graduates…. Preschool education will achieve none of these results."
International studies show that early enrollment is not linked to later success. The results of the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), demonstrate this. Students who started early did not do consistently better than their peers who started later. Students from Japan, Korea, and Singapore ranked among the highest on both assessments, yet none of these countries have high enrollments in early childhood programs. In fact, the country of Singapore has no publicly funded system.
Early schooling does not guarantee later success. Moreover, removing children from the home has adverse effects. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that children who spent more time in child care during the first four and half years of their lives are more likely to be aggressive toward other children and disobedient toward adults. It was found, moreover, that these behaviors persisted into kindergarten, where aggressive children bullied, fought with, and were mean to other children. The connection between aggressive behavior and time spent in day care was consistent, regardless of the quality of care, caregivers' experience, or maternal sensitivity.
Children under 5 need parenting, not schooling. Bill 14-261 infringes parents' rights to parent their young children. Parents should have the right to determine when formal schooling should begin. They should have the right to care for and teach their children in their own homes. In fact, parents' fundamental right to direct the education of their children, is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For parents who wish to enroll their child in institutional care, programs are available. There are also programmatic and legal remedies to address the problem of neglectful and unfit parents. If these programs are found to be ineffective, they should be reformed. Mandating all parents enroll in such programs is not the answer.
The compulsory school age should not be raised. Instead, compulsory schooling for ages 5 through 18 should be improved. Research shows that high standards, effective teaching and curricula, an effective testing regimen, usable data, effective remediation, strong administrative leadership, and increased parental choices improve education for children. Improved schooling, not more schooling, is necessary to improve achievement and ultimately to give students the skills and knowledge they need to graduate and succeed in college or career.
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