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A Journalist Comments on the Need for Greater Attention to Early Childhood Education (June 30, 2006)

A journalist describes the need for better, more extensive, and more innovative early childhood education, and he criticizes the lagging political will to provide the funds to make it a reality.

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The Riches of Early Childhood

Day care centers are supposed to remedy the integration crisis, demographic catastrophe, and the plight of our schools; they are to fill our value vacuum and build the foundation of the education system. And, of course, none of this is supposed to cost anything at all.

This is what education looks like: at the Am Zeisigberg Day Care Center children can learn arithmetic by climbing stairs. Every step leading up to their playhouse was recently numbered. Whoever goes two steps, and then another three, ends up at five. Real-life arithmetic. Numbering the stairs is just one of the many small innovations that helped this day care center in the small Brandenburg city of Müllrose win an award. Since last fall, the center has been the proud bearer of the German Day Care Seal of Quality, a kind of inspection sticker for high-quality day care.

In the meantime, about two hundred day care facilities have been inspected by PädQUIS, an institute at the Free University of Berlin. Forty percent passed on their first try. Everything gets tested in Germany: cars, frozen pizzas, beauty creams, says Wolfgang Tietze, inventor of the new seal of quality. “And yet, up to now, we knew very little about the quality of day care centers.” But if children spend an average of 4,000 hours in a good day care facility, then the impact lasts, even years down the road. They have a larger vocabulary, get better grades in school, and exhibit more positive social behavior.

A playroom in the house of education: That’s what day care was considered until a few years ago. Now it is supposed to become the foundation of the education system. Because according to current thinking, the problems with the German school system start with the very littlest ones. Children from immigrant families hardly speak a word of German when they enter first grade? Send them to day care for language training! Women are supposed to have children and work at the same time? Then finally open up more day care facilities, where even academics can feel good about leaving their offspring! Whether it’s the dismal school situation or the integration crisis, demographic catastrophe or our value vacuum, there is hardly a social problem that day care centers aren’t expected to solve.

Politics has also discovered “early learning.” When it comes to the educational panacea that is “day care,” an extremely grand coalition encompassing everything from the PDS to the CSU rules in Germany. Almost all federal states have amended their day care legislation and issued so-called education plans that regulate what the children are supposed to have learned by the time they start school. North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, wants to make language instruction and close collaboration with elementary schools compulsory. The day care centers are supposed to document the developmental stage of each child and identify health problems. These new ambitions definitely appeal to day care providers. “Our colleagues [in this field] feel like they are being taken seriously for the first time,” said Norbert Hocke of the teachers’ union [Gewerkschaft Bildung und Wissenschaft or GEW].

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