Enrichment Activities Program
February 10, 2001
Bush's Plan to Push Reading in 'Head Start' Stirs Debate
By JACQUES STEINBERG
ALLAS, Feb. 9 — Fredaysha Lucky was waving a red baton as she led the 15 children at her feet through the letters of the alphabet, each stapled to the wall behind her.
She would shout out a letter, followed by a word and the letter's sound — " `E,' elephant, eh!" " `I,' igloo, ih!" — and the children, cross- legged on a green rug, would follow in loud unison.
She and her class tripped over only two letters, not bad, considering that Fredaysha is 4 years old and half the others in Room 4 at the Margaret H. Cone Head Start center here are 3. Nearly all of them are black or Hispanic and live in an adjoining housing project, which is among the poorest in Dallas and is mostly barren, but for the occasional pecan tree.
The Bush administration hopes to replicate scenes like this at thousands of Head Start preschool centers across the country. Administration officials described the Cone Center as a rigorous model for teaching the more than 800,000 poor children in the federal program about letters, syllables and spelling to prepare them to learn to read when they move to kindergarten or first grade.
Among those in the administration championing the Cone Center approach is the first lady, Laura Bush, who visited the center in 1999 as first lady of Texas. "Young people deserve to have strong prereading and language activities in their pre-K programs," Mrs. Bush said today in a statement relayed by her office.
In seeking to broaden the menu of Head Start beyond the provision of care, meals, play and limited learning, President Bush is relying on researchers who argue that waiting too long to expose poor children to the basic elements of reading leaves them hopelessly behind peers blessed with far more academic resources, particularly at home.
That may sound unassailable but a cadre of developmental psychologists and educators, including members of the Head Start establishment, contends that the president's accelerated approach could be harmful. They argue that teaching 3- and 4- year-olds with little exposure to reading at home about too many components of language could prove devastatingly frustrating, enough to derail their educational careers before they begin.
"We know that reading to children and talking to them at this age can be beneficial," said David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of "The Hurried Child," a 1981 book being reissued this spring by Perseus Books. "As soon as you get into some of the more complicated things, kids may experience failure. They may feel like they're stupid."
An aide to Mr. Bush said the administration was expecting such criticism.
"Some of this is going to offend the sensibilities of the developmentally appropriate, Montessoriesque advocates of `Wait till they're ready,' " the aide said. "We feel we've got to intervene."
At times, Head Start has come under attack from conservatives who accuse it of usurping the role of families. But few today question the program's value for poor children. The debate is over what should happen at the centers.
Mr. Bush is challenging the hierarchy of priorities that has guided Head Start for much of its 36-year history. Most of the nation's 16,000 Head Start centers, a loose federation governed by committees of parents and administrators but answerable to the federal government, have ranked the availability of free medical care, counseling, meals and even extended play time as high as, if not higher than, helping children prepare to read.
But Mr. Bush would like to turn that pyramid on its head. "We don't want to interrupt any of the social service components," the president's aide said. "But the most important part of Head Start, the president believes, is literacy development."
While Cone is but one Head Start center that emphasizes literacy, a continuing government study of 40 Head Start programs across the country, begun in 1997, has found that the typical Head Start graduate entered kindergarten knowing no more than two letters.
In a 1999 analysis of those early results, three researchers led by Nicholas Zill wrote, "A probable reason why Head Start children are not learning early reading skills like letter recognition and print awareness is that many Head Start teachers are not teaching them."
Mr. Bush's aide said the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, will soon begin developing a curriculum that every Head Start teacher will be expected to follow. It will be modeled on the script that was created at the Cone Center in southwest Dallas by researchers from Southern Methodist University with a grant from Texas Instruments.
The administration has also encountered anxious opposition on another front: its plans to move Head Start to the Department of Education. Mr. Bush has described the move as consistent with his priorities, but advocates worry that the program's social service mission might be lost.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter sought a similar move, for similar reasons, but was dissuaded in large part by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, a liberal lobbying group. She argued then, as now, that minority parents wielded power in Head Start centers that they lacked in a public school system overseen by the Department of Education.
In a sign that the protests have been heard, Mr. Bush's aides said this week that they would not seek to move Head Start at least until the program is eligible for reauthorization by Congress, in 2003. But the president need not reassign the program to change it.
In the last Head Start reauthorization, in 1998, the Department of Health and Human Services adopted literacy standards for Head Start centers, including encouraging children to learn at least 10 letters and to "use language to communicate information, experiences, ideas, feelings."
Diane Ravitch, an advocate of increased early literacy training who served Mr. Bush's father as an assistant secretary of education, has argued that those guidelines are vague. Among other improvements, Dr. Ravitch has urged that the average salaries of Head Start teachers, about $20,000 a year, be raised in an effort to attract better instructors.
Reluctant to increase the program's $5 billion budget, Mr. Bush has focused instead on arming existing teachers with a "fairly prescribed" script that dictates "what ought to be known when," his aide said. Though no written tests would be given, the students' progress would be checked with periodic oral examinations.
At the Cone Center, where the median family income of the 90 children enrolled is about $7,000, Nell Carvell, the director of the Learning Therapy Program, a teacher training center at Southern Methodist University, wrote a curriculum as a road map for the center's teachers, none of whom hold a bachelor's degree.
Though not scripted to the day, the curriculum provides each teacher with a monthly theme and prewritten lessons to improve skills like recognizing letters visually and aurally, as well as understanding the role of letters in words, and the role of words in giving meaning to stories.
Before the curriculum was put in place, in 1994, graduates of the Cone Center who attended kindergarten at a nearby elementary school scored as low as the 21st percentile nationally in reading and vocabulary on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, comparable with classmates from similar backgrounds who had attended preschool elsewhere, if at all. Two years ago, the Cone graduates at the same school were scoring on average in the 94th percentile nationally; though the non-Cone students had also improved, they scored in the 80th percentile.
The center's officials say the improvements came with no cuts in social services, but some Head Start officials say they worry that if the program moved to the Department of Education, those other services would not get the attention they deserve.
After Fredaysha's lesson the other morning, her teacher, Margaret Lopez, gathered the class in a circle to clap out the syllables of words like "music" and "communication," a playful lesson that appeared nearly verbatim in Ms. Carvell's script.
Ms. Lopez, 38, who has been teaching Head Start children for 13 years and is pursuing an associate's degree at a nearby community college, said the curriculum gave her a confidence she had once lacked.
"I felt scared to go for it, to approach the reading skills," she said. "This gives me reassurance that I'm leading the children in a direction that everyone wants their children to go."
© 2004, Language Enrichment Activities Program