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Kindergarten challenged

The land that gave us the term "kindergarten" has decided not to make kindergarten compulsory. After a lengthy public debate during the last decade, centering on the contention of some educators that four-year-old children should be taught the basics of reading and math, the public school systems in this country have decided against enforcing a child's enrollment in school before the age of six.

Several reasons are given for this decision. A vast increase in the number of privately run kindergartens lifts the pressure for building preschools off the public sector. During the 1970s, churches and private organizations scrambled to make preschool available to meet the needs of the emerging modern family in West Germany.

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Some 65 percent of children between the ages of three and six now have slots in kindergarten open to them, up from 41 percent in 1971 and 33 percent in 1960. In some states as many as 90 percent of these children can be served by kindergarten.

At the same time, a threat was made by certain charities to shut down their kindergartens should the public schools elect to take on this age group. Since these charities run nearly 75 percent of the kindergartens, taking over this responsibility would place a nearly impossible burden on the public sector.

Another deterrent to compulsory kindergartens is the fact that there is insufficient proof that efforts to teach reading, writing, and numbers to very young children contribute to later school success. Landesstelle fur Erziehung and Unterricht (National Center for Education and Instruction), a research center in Stuttgart, ran extensive experiments along these lines. They found that children exposed to learning at an early age did somewhat better than their nonreading peers at first, but the advantage leveled off and appeared to disappear in three years.

Prof. G. Kleinschmidt, the center's early childhood specialist, comments, "Some of the children who could read felt so sure of their own ability that they didn't try to improve. Their scores actually dipped below those of their nonreading peers."

There is a great reluctance on the part of some families to give their children over to state education at such a young age. In West Germany only about one-fourth of the women work, and only 10 percent of those have children under school age. (In the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of the women work, and 56.1 percent of those have children under six years old).

One educator, Dr. Brigitte Mohr, puts it this way, "In the main, Germans prefer to bring up their children within the family as opposed to somehow institutionalized and state controlled education; perhaps too, as a hangover from the unpleasant experiences gained in Hitler's Third Reich."

Cost, too, is considered a nearly prohibitive factor. The Commission for Educational Planning estimated that more than 100,000 specialized staff members would be needed to run public kindergartens. All would require training and equipment at tremendous costs.


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