Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—What Toddlers Could Use – Some Graying Boomers

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


What Toddlers Could Use: Some Graying Boomers

By Richard Rothstein

There are two unrelated social problems that can solve each other. Too few poor children in their prekindergarten years have the kinds of literacy experiences that lead to later academic achievement. Simultaneously, healthier retirements leave many aging Americans craving socially useful roles.

Why not match them, giving retirees opportunities to read to young children?

There is a stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students, and by the time they enter school much of the damage has already been done. At least half the test score difference between black and white 12th graders is attributable to what occurs before they enter first grade.

All 3- and 4-year-olds need intellectually stimulating experiences. They should be read to, talked to, told stories and given play opportunities that include using paper and crayons, puzzles, clay, blocks and other objects to manipulate. Students who succeed usually had the benefit of regular lap reading as toddlers, and learned to pretend-read a variety of word and picture books.

With full employment and welfare reform moving mothers into jobs, it might seem that poor children will now get these experiences in formal preschools. Yet a recent survey by Dr. Bruce Fuller of the University of California and Dr. Sharon Kagan of Yale finds that the quality of day care for low-income children is remarkably poor.

At day care settings that serve welfare-to-work mothers in California, Connecticut and Florida, Professors Fuller and Kagan recorded children’s activity at 40 points during a three-hour observation. In California, a given child was being read to on an average of less than one of those 40 occasions. In Connecticut, it was about two, and in Florida about one and a half. In contrast, children were watching television or wandering aimlessly in 6 of these “snapshots” in California and Connecticut, and in nearly 13 in Florida.

Against that kind of backdrop, the first baby boomers turn 55 next year. Already, life spans have so lengthened, and retirement ages so declined, that only 20 percent of Americans 55 and over still work. Those who do not are mostly healthy and receiving benefits from Social Security or private pensions, or both. With time on their hands, many want more useful roles. The affluent ones moving to Arizona or Florida are exceptions; most reside not far from the very communities where needy preschoolers could use attention.

Yet as Marc Freedman notes in his book “Prime Time” (Public Affairs, 1999), while we “face a profound shortage of human beings to tend the social fabric, we overlook the presence of untapped human resources in the older population.”

In 1995, Mr. Freedman helped found the Experience Corps, a project sponsored by the government’s Corporation for National Service, which is directed by former Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania.

The fledgling project ( has placed 800 volunteer retirees in 70 schools around the country. They read to and with children, talk to and tutor them. The volunteers get stipends of about $150 a month, and commit to 15-hour-a-week schedules. Schools often set aside rooms where they can gather, exchange experiences, consult with teachers and even meet with parents. The project relies on foundation grants and some discretionary financing that Mr. Wofford assembles from other federal programs.

The Experience Corps is now beginning to move into preschools. Literacy training can do the most good there, and most retirees already have the required grandparenting and lap reading skills.

At a demonstration project in the heart of Kansas City’s most impoverished African-American community, Juanita Carter, 75, volunteers in a Y.M.C.A.-operated preschool. Retired from her job cleaning university classrooms, she lives on Social Security and a small pension.

“I love the Experience Corps,” Ms. Carter said, “and as long as I can stay healthy, I’m going to stay here,” reading to 3- and 4-year-olds, helping them practice writing letters and numbers, comforting them when they cry, meeting them when they get off a bus in the morning.

Another Kansas City volunteer, Laura White, is 90, retired from restaurant and housecleaning work. With eyesight failing, she now mostly “reads” books with big pictures, asking children to identify the objects. This not only benefits the children, “it keeps me alert,” Ms. White said.

“America,” Mr. Freedman noted, “now possesses not only the largest and fastest-growing population of older adults in our history, but the healthiest, most vigorous and best educated.”

Working generations too frequently cannot provide the intellectual stimulation for infants and toddlers that promotes success in school. Matching retirees (in need of purpose) with preschoolers (in need of storytelling) is like elementary algebra: multiplying two negative trends brings a positive result.

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