Thumbs up for Head Start

May 24, 2007

At 42, it's still a model for what early childhood education should look like and a testament to why a comprehensive program of early learning and parental involvement is so important for low-income children and their families. But despite its relative success, Head Start is still struggling to meet its full potential. As it finally moves toward another reauthorization by Congress after being stalled for four years, Head Start deserves more money for programs and staff - and less reliance on standardized tests.

Who would have thought in 1965 that giving low-income youngsters more social and intellectual stimulation, while also providing them with nutritious meals and involving parents in their healthy development, would help spur a national movement? As young children are increasingly expected to enter elementary school "ready to learn," the importance of prekindergarten and quality child care programs has gained wide acceptance. The federal No Child Left Behind law has also stressed the need for youngsters to develop basic skills as they prepare for high-stakes testing by third grade.

Head Start has not escaped the testing controversy. A key issue in the reauthorization is the likely elimination of a 20-minute standardized assessment, something that was initiated by the Bush administration in 2003 and used twice a year to measure progress and school readiness of 4- and 5-year-old Head Start participants.

Congress is rightly wondering: What is the value of a test that requires children to sit and focus on questions related to letters, words and numbers when they learn best by talking and doing?

Legislation to get rid of the test has passed the House but still needs approval by the full Senate.

Some advocates worry that the bill pending in the Senate would institute some important accountability measures at the expense of parental input, which has been a critical element of the program since its inception. They are also concerned that proposed funding increases cannot make up for less-generous increases in recent years, still leaving the supply of programs short of demand.

These are reasonable concerns, but they can surely be settled by compromise. The important thing is to review and renew a program that has changed America's educational and social landscape.

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