Head Start Needs Reform, Not More Money

You can tell by President Bush's proposal to reform Head Start (search) 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.

President Bush wants Head Start, the Lyndon Johnson (search)-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 helps children.

"It would absolutely destroy Head Start," Sarah Greene, president and chief executive of the National Head Start Association (search), a nonprofit that promotes Head Start, told The New York Times. Said Sen. Edward Kennedy (search), 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 help.

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 (search) -- 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 other methods.

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 (search). 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.

The Connecticut 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 (search), 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.

Jonathan Butcher is a researcher in domestic policy and Krista Kafer is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.