• U.S.

Education: Easy as E.C.E.

4 minute read

“Don’t tinker. Come up with a totally new look at early education and give us a whole new way of running schools and teaching in the primary grades.” So ordered California Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson Riles when he assumed his post in 1971. The State Department of Education, along with a task force of educators and parents, delved into the innovations and experiments of the past decade, accepting some, rejecting others, and finally developed a reform plan that Riles adopted. Dubbed the Early Childhood Education (E.C.E.) program, the project, now in its third year of operation, is used to teach 400,000 children (in kindergarten through third grade) in nearly a third of the state’s elementary schools and costs the state $63 million a year to operate.

Hiring Mothers. Schools that elect to participate in E.C.E. receive an extra $170 per student to create their own programs geared to each child’s “learning profile.” If a third-grader is reading on a first-grade level—all too common a circumstance today—the teacher is expected to help that child on his own level. Students ahead of their peers are provided more advanced lessons. To achieve such individual instruction, more instructors were needed. Since it was too expensive to hire enough trained teachers to do the job, Riles set out to use parents in the classroom.

Currently, 181,000 parents are involved in some way in the program. Besides helping to teach, they make up the majority of each E.C.E. school’s advisory committee, which shapes the overall program. Parent participation in ghetto schools has traditionally been a problem across the country and remains one in California, but the problem has been partially solved by using E.C.E. money to hire mothers as teaching aides. They earn $2,320 a school year for a 3-hr. day. For more help in the classroom, older children from nearby high schools have been recruited.

A typical E.C.E. class, a descendant of the British “open-school” concept, replaces a front-and-center teacher and rows of students’ desks with scattered work areas, each devoted to a different subject. Lessons in reading, math and, say, art may thus take place simultaneously. Teachers have found the new setup difficult at times, but after adjusting to it and the presence of aides, many have found it a good change. Says one: “I’ve never worked so hard, but the children are more interested in learning and the classrooms are much more pleasant.”

According to some early evaluations of the program, the children may be learning more too. At Russell Elementary School, for instance, 100 of the 150 kindergarten students are reading, whereas before E.C.E. virtually none could read. At the Warner Elementary School in the well-to-do Westwood section of Los Angeles, Stephen Heller, 8, attests to the program’s apparent success: “We have more help and can learn faster.” Riles says that E.C.E. “has unleashed a creativity and sense of involvement that we could not have anticipated.” Not all Californians are impressed with E.C.E. Some parents are disturbed that children on different grade levels are grouped together. Says Marilyn Herman, mother of three: “There is so much going on in these classrooms that even with more individual help some kids are being shortchanged on basics.”

California Legislative Analyst Alan Post claims that the state’s evaluation of the program is “mushy,” not separating the results of E.C.E. from other programs. Says Post: “We know that some [teachers] are complaining that the E.C.E. is making a shambles out of the classroom. Our position toward expanding E.C.E. is that prudent fiscal measures be exercised until the program has clearly proved its effectiveness.”

Even so, tightfisted Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a $35 million expansion of the program. Moreover, the State Board of Education has requested a $454 million appropriation to introduce the same type of program into secondary schools beginning in 1977. As Stanford Education Professor Michael Kirst says, “The general climate of opinion about E.C.E. is positive.” Indeed, according to John Pincus, a Rand Corp. analyst and professed skeptic on educational reform, the California effort has the potential of becoming “the broadest reform in public education since the introduction of the comprehensive high school 75 years ago.”

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