At a national Head Start meeting last week, Bush administration officials attempted to reassure hundreds of program leaders that a new accountability system would not harm their schools.
Wade F. Horn, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for children and families, repeatedly praised Head Start programs for their efforts to prepare disadvantaged preschool children for kindergarten. And he tried to assure them that new testing and standards would not be used to penalize programs.
“Some view this proposal as a burden,” he said. “Others may be worried about upsetting the status quo.”
Mr. Horn said President Bush’s “Good Start, Grow Smart” initiative, unveiled nine months ago, would not create an entrance exam for kindergarten; would not be used as a basis for taking money away from Head Start programs; and would not replace locally developed assessment programs.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of this,” he said. “We should embrace this.”
To begin with, he said, the assessment would allow Head Start programs to showcase the significant help they’re giving to preschoolers.
Some community-level Head Start leaders who attended the Washington meeting said they were not resisting the Bush program, which heavily emphasizes promoting literacy, but were concerned about what it would bring.
Robert D. Williamson, the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Committee of Clark County in Vancouver, Wash., which serves families with children participating in Head Start, said there’s much more to Head Start than literacy.
“This emphasis on literacy is distracting,” he said. “It’s only one part of [child] development.”
Under the administration’s early-childhood initiative, Mr. Horn said, there will be a test for Head Start children heading for kindergarten, but it will not determine whether youngsters are held back. Rather, he said, it will help teachers develop learning plans and track how much pupils benefited from Head Start.
The federal plan calls for assessing the skills of every 4-year-old in Head Start instead of just taking a random sample, as is currently the practice. (“White House Plan for Head Start Test Draws Critics,” Jan. 15, 2003.)
Head Start serves more than 900,000 children ages 3 and 4 nationwide. It provides education, health and dental care, nutrition, and other social services to those children and their families.
The testing will also identify Head Start programs that need more guidance in certain areas, Mr. Horn said. Those programs will receive additional resources and training, he said.
Mr. Horn also said that assessment areas would be based on the 13 skills mandated by the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start. However, he said, only measures scientifically researched to be valid and reliable for preschool children will be used.
But Mr. Williamson said he was worried that Head Start programs’ distinctive local approaches to preschoolers’ needs could be damaged by federal mandates, such as those planned by the Bush administration. He is concerned about increased testing, he said, and is disappointed that, so far, Head Start officials “haven’t had a seat at the table” in developing tests.
"[Preschool] teachers say they’re no longer educating children,” Mr. Williamson said. “They say they’re just preparing them for the tests.”