Head Start is a 38-year-old early childhood education icon that George Bush says needs a makeover.
The program annually affects about one million low-income children and families at a taxpayer cost of $6,000 each. It's central to the push to provide quality learning at earlier ages. Head Start provides the first and possibly best chance to intercede in the cycle of poverty and poor school success. But research shows it gives most students only a temporary boost, with little effect on later academic achievement. It provides education, social, psychological, health and nutrition services for children who are 3 to 5 years old - and often to their families.
Reformers want more emphasis on education, particularly pre-reading skills. They want a standardized, research-proven curriculum, with better-trained and better-paid teachers. They would transfer Head Start from the Health and Human Services to the Education Department.
On the other side of the debate are long-time supporters of the program who insist that health, socialization, family support and self-esteem are more important to child development than a pre-literacy curriculum.
Much has changed since Head Start was created in 1965. There's been an explosion of knowledge about early-childhood learning. There also has been a growth of social, nutrition and health services in many other federal departments.
Nutrition, health and socialization are vital to childhood success. But as other agencies provide those needs, Head Start should refocus on its core mission of education. The true value of early childhood education is that lays a foundation for continued academic success.
Four major federal education bills are due for reauthorization and change in the coming year - early childhood education, special education, higher education and vocational/technical education. Congressional hearings have started as President Bush and his supporters push for more accountability and result-oriented reforms in these cornerstones of the American educational system. This is the first in a series of editorials explaining these debates.
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