Plan worries Head Start supporters; Program’s reading, writing, ‘rithmetic may face review; Standardized testing among Bush’s ideas to gauge effectiveness

By Robert Dodge and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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When Oscar Fuentes enrolled at the Jerry Junkins Head Start Center in West Dallas, he never spoke. “All he would do is point at things,” said his mom, Rosa.

It turned out he had a speech impediment. But with hard work and therapy, he has overcome it. Ms. Fuentes credits the Junkins center and goes 30 minutes out of her way to drive him there.

“He’s so ready for kindergarten now,” Ms. Fuentes said about her 5-year-old son. “The program has helped him enormously. I wouldn’t want to change anything about it.”

That program is Head Start, which for 38 years has been among the federal government’s most popular programs with Democrats and many Republicans.

But now, President Bush argues, it is time to find out if the $6.8 billion health and education program is earning passing grades. The president’s concern: Head Start programs have neglected literacy and math skills, turning their facilities into federally funded baby-sitting services.

The White House has offered proposals consistent with the president’s desire to measure educational performance. But the initiatives have stirred protest among Head Start’s supporters, who say the program is working and needs to be expanded, not overhauled.

“We think it has been successful, but we think it can be more successful,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said “… And that is why we want to reform it, strengthen it and make it better,”

The president’s proposals, which will be included in this year’s Head Start reauthorization bill, start with a plan that has stirred harsh criticism within the Head Start community. It calls for giving the program’s 900,000 children a 15- to 20-minute standardized test.

The idea is not to assess individual students but to collect a body of data to find out whether local programs are effective in teaching basic literacy and math skills.

Mr. Bush also wants to move the program from Health and Human Services to the Education Department. And the president wants to give states the option of taking over the federal program so it can be aligned with local education systems – an idea that foments anxiety in financially stressed states such as Texas.

All the proposals are sparking a loud outcry from Head Start officials, who question whether the administration’s proposals are designed to undermine and eventually end the program.

“Let’s stop the cynical word games that are being used to describe the dismantling of Head Start as something that somehow will improve it,” said Ron Herndon, chairman of the NationalHead Start Association.

At Head Start of Greater Dallas, which provides services to about 4,000 children, the White House proposals have introduced an atmosphere of uncertainty. Officials there say they share concerns that cash-strapped states will divert Head Start funds to other uses, such as patching potholes.

“We’ve got a program that’s worked incredibly well for 30 years, and I don’t see the need to change it,” said Rob Massonneau, external affairs director for Head Start of Greater Dallas.

Critics worry that any changes that could lead to less funding would undermine Head Start’s success in providing children with critical nutritional and health services. And they believe transferring the program to the Education Department would signal a shift away from providing social support.

“These are poor families that need help,” said Dallas Head Start teacher Blanca Esparza. “We take kids to the dentist. We make sure they get all their shots. If the parents need something, we find a way to get them the resources they need. Whatever problem they have, we deal with it.”

More funding sought

Other Head Start supporters said the White House would do better to fully fund the program. Only about 38 percent of eligible families, or those generally below the federal poverty rate, are able to participate.

Without fully funding Head Start, said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, it is too early to be testing participants. “They have other underlying requirements that have not been met to have school-ready children by kindergarten,” he said.

The administration sees the Head Start proposals as a natural follow-up to No Child Left Behind. The 2001 law holds states accountable for ensuring that all children are proficient in reading and math – a requirement that puts pressure on early-childhood programs to turn out school-ready children.

Since its inception in 1965, Head Start has been charged with helping poor children develop the same literacy, verbal and math skills as their middle-class counterparts. The program also provides comprehensive health, dental and nutritional services.

The White House contends that children in Head Start programs are not catching up significantly with students from more affluent households. The administration points to studies that show Head Start children not only lag behind their peers but also lose any gains by second or third grade. (Head Start supporters point to studies showing the opposite.)

Even critics of the president’s proposals doubt that Head Start is living up to its promise. “The quality in Head Start is uneven at best,” said Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago child development graduate school.

Despite criticisms, many of the nation’s 1,400 local Head Start programs are doing fine work, experts said.

For instance, the 36 Head Start centers in Dallas probably will not have to worry about efforts to increase the quality of literacy programs. Both the president and first lady Laura Bush hold up Dallas’ curriculum as a gold standard.

The curriculum, called LEAP and designed by Nell Carvell, a childhood literacy expert at Southern Methodist University, puts a strong emphasis on pre-reading and vocabulary development. The idea is to correct one of the biggest disadvantages poor students face: living in an environment that is not rich in words.

Program’s success

The Language Enrichment Activities Program was introduced in 1994 at Dallas’ Margaret Cone Head Start Center and started producing results right away. Reading scores soared. Julia Frazier Elementary, the South Dallas school that most Cone center graduates attended, produced some of the highest test scores in the state despite a heavily poor student body drawn primarily from the Frazier Courts housing project. The curriculum has since spread to all Dallas Head Starts.

“Before, the kids could recognize their own name, and that’s about it,” said Ms. Esparza, who teaches at the Junkins center. “Now they’re actually putting words together and reading.”

“It’s almost a 100 percent difference” from before, said Dallas teacher Jeannette Easley.

The White House wants to see more Head Start children acquire the same skills, and thus the testing proposal put forward by the president.

Trials of the tests have been lasting 15 to 20 minutes. They are kept simple – for instance, calling on students to identify words and letters.

But critics contend young children cannot focus on tests and the results will be unreliable. Moreover, they argue that children are easily distracted by stressful living conditions and poor health.

The testing plan, and other proposals, are raising questions on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are expected to weigh in as spending for Head Start is reauthorized this year.

“As the father of a 5-year-old, it is hard to imagine him sitting still in a chair long enough to give him any form of a comprehensive test,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Health and Human Services Department, contends the tests would not be used to evaluate the progress of individual children. Instead, he said, the results from each test would be added together to get a snapshot, or average, of how a local program was doing relative to other facilities.

“We are not developing an entrance exam for kindergarten,” Mr. Horn said.

Exam prototypes

The government is paying $1.8 million for the tests to be developed by Westat, a privately owned company in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

Nicholas Zill, a psychologist who is leading the effort at Westat, said a prototype of the exams is being tested on 1,300 children at 36 Head Start centers nationwide. The initial round of testing will be completed this month and should be ready in the fall to be given to about 500,000 4- and 5-year-olds. Mr. Zill said it is true that young children are difficult to test – but he said averaging produces reliable results.

Critics contend Head Start instructors will manipulate the tests by prepping children, fearing that if their facilities do poorly they will lose federal funding – and their jobs.

“High-stakes testing has limited value,” said Stephanie Fanjul, director of the student achievement department at the National Education Association, a professional group representing 2.7 million teachers.

Craig Ramey, an expert at Georgetown University who chairs a panel advising the administration on the testing system, said test results could be used to spot troubled programs and help the staff improve the facility.

“The president wants to be sure that kids in Head Start get the full benefit of what Head Start is intended to do,” he said.

Mr. Thompson, the health and human services secretary, bristles at the notion that the Bush administration wants to dismantle the program, writing off opposition as bureaucratic intransigence.

“There is a tremendous, innate force in all federal programs to maintain the status quo,” he said. “The bureaucracy in every department is the same way: ‘It is the way we have done it, it is the way we are going to do it, and Tommy Thompson will be gone someday and it is the way we will keep doing it.'”