July 14, 2003
By Jonathan Butcher and Krista Kafer
You can tell by
President Bush's proposal to reform Head Start that, even
after two years in office, he still doesn't get it. He still seems
to think those who receive government money should have something
to show for it.
Bush wants Head Start, the Lyndon Johnson-era program for
underprivileged preschoolers, to make its government money go
further. He wants to add an academic focus to Head Start's
traditional mission of health and nutrition, and he wants states
that have good preschool programs to be able to combine those
programs with Head Start.
Of course, Head
Start's supporters are aghast. They like their program, which
serves about 1 million children ages 3 and 4 nationwide, just the
way it is. They would prefer additional funding, but they don't
want too much emphasis on learning or teacher qualifications, and
they don't want anyone to measure whether what they do actually
"It would absolutely
destroy Head Start," Sarah Greene, president and chief executive of
the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit that promotes
Head Start, told The New York Times. Said Sen. Edward
Kennedy, D-Mass., a longtime champion of Head Start: "It makes no
sense to start down a totally new path with a program that's been
proven effective by three full decades of research."
Only, Sen. Kennedy is
wrong. What three full decades of research by the Department of
Health and Human Services, which oversees the program, has shown is
that some of the children who participate in Head Start see no
academic improvement. Others show marginal improvement, but even
their gains disappear after four years. And these are kids who need
HHS studied students
who, when they entered the program in the fall of 1997, ranked in
the bottom fifth of their age group in language, pre-reading and
pre-mathematics. When tested again in the spring of 1998 -- after
several months in Head Start -- their pre-math scores had increased
two percentile points, their letter-recognition skills had
decreased two percentile points and none of their scores had
climbed beyond the 25th percentile. Test scores in 2000-01 revealed
much the same thing.
Legislation in the
House -- the School Readiness Act of 2003 -- seeks to address
these shortcomings by requiring Head Start employees to teach early
reading, writing and math skills, the same as most private and
state programs do. The bill also calls for half of Head Start's
teachers to have four-year college degrees by 2008, for standards
to be brought in line with K-12 standards, and for students'
progress to be measured -- if not by standardized tests then by
Further, states would
have to ensure their "school readiness" standards are set at the
same level or higher than existing federal Head Start standards.
This means, instead of Head Start programs having to meet the
lowest standards of any programs that deal with preschoolers, they
will have to meet the highest.
It can work. Just ask
the people in Connecticut's School Readiness Initiative. This
collaborative effort between the state departments of education and
social services gives money to accredited or approved pre-K
programs to serve children in high-poverty districts.
program has established stringent quality controls, including
resource-sharing agreements with local public libraries,
arrangements with public kindergarten programs to ease the
transition from Head Start into kindergarten and several components
that keep parents informed and involved.
By producing this
uniform program with specific quality standards, Connecticut has
seen scores increase at the fourth-grade level on the NAEP
Reading assessment, a national normed test (to the point where it's
now second in the nation, behind only Massachusetts) and received
high marks from teachers and others.
President Bush is
right about Head Start: It's "working OK." He's also right that "we
want better than OK in America. We want excellence." The House
legislation offers an innovative, yet sound path to that goal. We
know far more about how children learn and what they're capable of
now than we did when LBJ launched Head Start in 1967. The critics
would have us ignore that knowledge.
If we want
underprivileged children to learn as much as their more fortunate
peers, we must put an emphasis on education. Allow states with good
programs to coordinate their approaches, guided by accountability
requirements such as the House legislation's teacher requirement
and pilot program participation requirements. Raise standards for
Head Start centers and educators, and make sure kids are ready when
they enter school.
For once, it's not
about the money. It's about the kids.
Appeared on FoxNews.com
You can tell by President Bush's proposal to reform Head Start that, even after two years in office, he still doesn't get it. He still seems to think those who receive government money should have something to show for it.
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