Getting a Head Start
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MARGARET WARNER: Next, does Head Start need a new start? Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has that story.
TEACHER: Okay, today we’re going to write the letter “m.” Does everybody remember the letter “m”?
LEE HOCHBERG: The three- and four-year-olds in the Albina Head Start program in Portland, Oregon, had a pretty good feel for their letters when we visited a few weeks ago.
TEACHER: That is a nice “m,” Dantae. Those are some good-looking “m’s” there.
LEE HOCHBERG: But there’s debate over just how literate the 900,000 preschoolers in the nation’s Head Start classes really are, and how literate they ought to be. Head Start is a $6.5 billion federally funded program to promote school readiness for preschoolers from low-income families.
CHILD: I’m the champion!
TEACHER: Yes, you did a good job today.
LEE HOCHBERG: Head Start says it’s doing a good job. The bush administration, though, says not good enough.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Many children are still showing up in kindergarten not ready to learn. That’s got to change. So the Department of Health and Human Services will implement an accountability system for every Head Start center in America.
LEE HOCHBERG: President Bush in April ordered 50,000 Head Start teachers to get training on new ways to teach early literacy. And he proposed Head Start funding be contingent upon proof that the program prepares children for later learning.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We want to say that in return for federal taxpayers’ help, we expect you to be providing the foundations for reading. Every Head Start center in America must teach these skills and must demonstrate that its teaching is effective.
LEE HOCHBERG: The new Head Start policy puts more emphasis on literacy than ever before.
SPOKESPRSON: This summer, half a million children will need your help.
LEE HOCHBERG: The federal government created Head Start in 1965 as a comprehensive summer program for disadvantaged kids. It was to create a nurturing learning environment, but also to monitor students’ physical, dental, and mental health, and guide parents on care giving.
LEE HOCHBERG: In 1998, Congress mandated new academic standards for the program, requiring preschoolers to expand their vocabularies, identify ten letters of the alphabet, and other goals. The Bush Administration says those standards aren’t being met. Head Start leaders are dismayed by that conclusion.
RONNIE HERNDON, Head Start: It’s insulting. It’s insulting to the Head Start community. You have not even taken a cursory look to find out what are these programs doing across the country.
LEE HOCHBERG: Ronnie Herndon is chairman of the National Head Start Association, which promotes Head Start, and he directs the Albina Head Start school in Portland. He says 80% of his preschoolers meet Congress’ standards, and many go beyond those standards.
RONNIE HERNDON: They said ten letters. I thought that was laughable– “kids should know ten letters of the alphabet when they leave Head Start.” Well, I should hope so.
LEE HOCHBERG: Albina’s head teacher, Karrissa Palmer, says her staff assesses students three times yearly for literacy and other skills.
KARISSA PALMER: “Does the child know the front of a book? Does she understand that print contains a messages?”
LEE HOCHBERG: “Where to start on a page, which way to go.” So it is reading skills, basic reading skills.
KARISA PALMER: Mm-hmm.
TEACHER: Has anybody ever flossed their teeth? You have? Can I show you?
LEE HOCHBERG: Head Start leaders say the program’s attention to health issues helps students learn. In a recent analysis, the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes, “Head Start generates long-term improvements in schooling attainment, earnings, and crime reduction.” And a study of 3,300 Head Start students by Assessment Technology, an educational consultant, finds Congress’ reforms are having impact, and the kids are better mastering number concepts and literacy skills. But the administration says improvement isn’t coming fast enough.
WINDY HILL, Department of Health & Human Services: With so many children going into so many Head Start classrooms annually, there’s never a time to wait.
LEE HOCHBERG: Windy Hill is the Department of Health and Human Services’ Associate Commissioner for Head Start.
WINDY HILL: While Head Start children are showing gains, when they leave Head Start, they still are performing below the national norm, and that’s just not acceptable.
TEACHER: They can’t find the dictionary.
LEE HOCHBERG: At the University of Washington Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, researchers say teacher training could improve literacy outcomes. Colleen Huebner is studying methods of engaging preschoolers in reading. She says some new academic findings haven’t been integrated into Head Start.
COLLEEN HUEBNER, University of Washington: Developmental research of the past 20 years has absolutely exploded and taught us amazing things about early learning. We now know things we didn’t know 35 years ago when Head Start began.
LEE HOCHBERG: The administration wants Head Start’s 50,000 teachers to study and teach phonemics, the approach on this training video.
SPOKESMAN: Pre-k students should focus on listening activities that include rhyming.
LEE HOCHBERG: It builds reading readiness by playing games with similar-sounding words. The President says it was successful at a Head Start program in Texas. But educators like Kathryn Barnard, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Infant Mental Health, say the administration is overselling the method.
KATHRYN BARNNARD: The best term that describes it is wishful thinking. I think it’s an idea, it’s exciting to see a procedure that has worked in a study or two. To then think that this is going to work nationwide on all children in Head Start, I can tell you right now, it will not be successful.
LEE HOCHBERG: Barnard says many of the one-quarter of American children– low income or not– who enter kindergarten unprepared to learn, do so because of developmental or emotional factors, and the Texas program can do nothing about that. And Head Start leaders, while granting phonemics may have a place in some curricula– it’s already being used in Portland– say preschool children can learn by many methods.
RONNIE HERNDON: Most kindergartens don’t require that you come in knowing your ABC’s and you can read “Oliver Twist.” This is kindergarten, by the way. We’re not talking about Harvard or Yale; this is kindergarten.
LEE HOCHBERG: Teachers-have begun receiving training in phonemics this summer. But many say they’re alarmed about the administration’s plan to link Head Start funding to literacy outcomes. Even supporters of Head Start reform, like Colleen Huebner, say defunding programs is the wrong approach.
COLLEEN HUEBNER: This isn’t something we can afford to take money away from. Head Start’s probably aren’t hurting children. I think to defund them, we probably increase the risk of hurting children.
LEE HOCHBERG: But the administration’s Windy Hill says the government needs the stick to ensure better outcomes.
WINDY HILL: What we’re saying is that as we begin to monitor programs, we are going to hold programs accountable for meeting the standards. Including the mandate that teachers demonstrate competency in areas that include early literacy.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Starting today we’ll distribute a guide book for early childhood educators and caregivers.
LEE HOCHBERG: Head Start leadership fears the administration’s increasing focus on literacy portends a broad shift for the program. The President has said he wants to move Head Start to the U.S. Department of Education. Head Start predicts that could eliminate future funding for the health and counseling services it provides. The administration has no comment right now on Head Start’s future funding.