Under Bush, 'Head Start' focuses on early literacy

Shortage of teachers may hinder focus on pre-school reforms.

Every child.

President Bush says it over and over. When it comes to schooling, every child should haver an equal chance.

Yet, as educators this week listen to the president outline Part II of his education reform – getting a jump start on literacy in the pre-K years – even his supporters say there are bigger issues that have to be addressed if the "every child" goal is to be achieved.

Just as the nation faces a shortage of 2 million teachers for K-12 over the next 10 years, for instance, so, too, is there a shortage of pre-school teachers.

The deficit is critical, experts say, because scientific research shows that poor, pre-schooled kids have significantly higher graduation rates and income levels than disadvantaged children who are not preschooled.

Neither is the granddaddy of all pre-K programs, Head Start, being expanded. Right now, it serves about 850,000 three- and four-year-olds below the poverty line. Yet there are 1.3 million poor kids of the same age who are not enrolled in Head Start, according to the department of Health and Human Services, which runs the program.

"We need to be sure to talk about the whole picture," says Stephanie Fanjul, the director of student achievement at the National Education Association.

Unwavering policy

The importance of early learning is certainly not lost on the Bush administration. It was one of the few nonterrorism goals that the president mentioned in his State of the Union speech this year. And he has stuck to the unveiling of his plans this week, even as the situation in the MIddle East makes extra demands on his time.

"It is important for our nation to remember we have other important responsibilities," Bush said Tuesday, the first of a two-day rollout. "If we expect achievement from every child, all our children need to begin school with an equal chance at achievement."

To facilitate that, the White House wants to strengthen the federal role in early learning by getting back to the basics of letters and numbers. This summer, it will begin transforming Head Start into an early literacy program by training all 50,000 Head Start teachers in scientifically proven methods (which can be. something as simple as how to teach a child to hold a book).

It will also emphasize accountability, a key aspect of the K-12 education reform passed by Congress last year.

While Head Start teachers won't test tots, they will have to report on their young charges' progress, and their funding will depend on their results.

Meanwhile, the administration wants to attach what it calls "quality criteria" to the funding it gives states for early learning – something Congress would have to approve. And yesterday the White House launched a pre-K awareness campaign aimed at parents, teachers, and childcare providers.

Modest budget increase

The White House effort, however, is not concentrated on expanding Head Start, but strengthening what's already there.

The president's budget calls for only a 2 percent increase in the program – this, after a steady expansion in the Clinton years during which funding nearly trippled in the last decade, and the number of children served nearly doubled.

But some Republicans and Democrats in Congress say growth can't stop now. Senators Edward Kennedy (D) of Mass., and George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, are working on a bill to provide at least $1 billion to states to improve early-childhood education.

While these lawmakers, and educators like Ms. Fanjul, are urging the White House to reach more kids, there's the other side of the issue – teachers.

"The shortage is at least as much, or more" compared to K-12 teachers, says Ray Taylor, president of the Association of Community College Trustees.

Demand ... but no supply

The demand, explains Taylor, is being driven by states which are moving toward universal pre-K, and by a new baby boomlet. And while he lauds the White House for emphasizing early learning, he implies that the Bush administration is not adequately addressing the issue of getting more teachers into the pipeline.

"They're challenging us to deal with the pipeline issue ... and that's going to be a tough chore," he says.

Simply put, there isn't enough money to support the trend toward early-childhood learning, continues Taylor, who points to the need for radical rethinking, including the possibility of dropping 11th and 12th grade in public schools and adding pre-K. One state, Georgia, has turned to the lottery to finance universal pre-K, he says.

Recruiting challenges

Community colleges, which turn out the majority of pre-K teachers, can do more to encourage students in this direction. One example is Yosemite Community College in Modesto, CA. It has recruited students among 30-year-old welfare moms, and taken the classroom to migrant workers.

But even with this kind of outreach, the bottom line still is that, while society says it values teachers, it doesn't pay them, says Pamila Fisher, Yosemite's chancellor.

With the average salary for pre-K instructors a mere $16,000, the shortage will continue, Ms. Fisher says. "It is a very real problem and it will continue to be a problem until we pay them better," she says.

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