Americans have long heard about the difficulties of learning to read. Now they're discovering more about the causes and solutions - which seem to lie in preschool years.
A typical child, for instance, enters Head Start knowing only one letter of the alphabet. At the end of one year, he or she still knows only one letter. In some poor school districts, kids begin kindergarten not knowing basic words such as "chicken," "leaf," or "triangle." One study shows that three-year-olds from affluent families have larger vocabularies than some welfare parents.
Now the Bush administration wants to make early childhood reading a national priority - but with a twist.
It wants to promote only programs that are "proven" to be effective with scientific results. While lauding the new emphasis on accountability, critics worry about a lack of funding, a lack of teachers - and what the definition of "proven" might turn out to be.
"Launching a child into and across their life is as important as launching the next space shuttle, and we certainly did use science in that regard," says Reid Lyon, director of child development research at the National Institutes of Health and a key player in the administration's new approach.
How to teach reading has been the subject of pitched battles and competing fads for decades. What the administration is proposing is refocusing research and federal funding on methods with a scientific basis.
The increased emphasis on scientific research as the basis for all further action was a key theme at a two-day summit last week on early childhood cognitive development, sponsored by first lady and former teacher Laura Bush.
The administration also announced two new initiatives:
* A joint task force between the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The task force is to take the research and findings from the summit and translate them into "practical" programs for young people - including a likely overhaul of Head Start, a preschool program which serves 880,000 poor children but has never emphasized literacy. The move was welcomed by the House subcommittee on Education Reform, which plans to hold a hearing on early childhood education on Tuesday.
* A massive research project to last at least five years to the tune of $10 million a year. Conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the project will try to identify interactions that help young children from all backgrounds develop learning skills, says Mr. Lyon. It will include everything from the influence of health and nutrition on learning, to specific interaction with reading materials.
Following the research
"We're really pleased that the administration is talking this way, but the question is: Will they have the backbone to follow science in terms of wherever it goes?" says Amy Wilkins, an analyst at the Education Trust.
In Texas, where the Bushes developed their educational roots, scientific research led to a pilot program that helped Head Start use proven methods of teaching early literacy.
The program came out of a similar summit held by Mrs. Bush when she was first lady of Texas. But to make the program work, Texas had to cough up $15 million, and Head Start underwent massive and expensive changes: retraining of instructors, mentors for every 12 teachers, and the promotion of aides to staff status, so that each classroom has two teachers.
Head Start officials say it will take a similar financial commitment to implement a literacy program on a nationwide scale.
"There's no way we can continue comprehensive services and do enhancement of literacy without additional funds," says Sarah Greene, chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association. Last year, the Clinton administration increased Head Start's budget by nearly $1 billion. This year, the Bush administration proposes an increase of $125 million. "That's not even enough to cover inflation," she says.
Not easy to 'do what works'
Lack of funds, a severe teacher shortage, and resistance to change make the administration's approach - while laudable - extremely challenging, says Ms. Wilkins. She points out that while Texas may work as a test area, it is quite another thing to push the concept of "do what works" nationally. Just look at the resistance that state governors have had to the accountability standards the administration wants in education reform, she says.
"You've got to remember, when research runs into politics, politics trumps it," says Wilkins.
The administration seems undaunted. At the summit, officials highlighted efforts that are making a difference without a huge influx of federal dollars.
Many pediatricians, for instance, see themselves as the natural source for parents of all economic backgrounds to learn about early literacy. In a program called "Reach Out and Read," more than 7,000 pediatricians have been trained to counsel parents on the basics of teaching early reading, handing over an age-appropriate book at the end of each twice-yearly visit.
Similarly, Maryland public libraries have drawn up fliers with early-reading tips and are retraining library staff and starting a marketing campaign to take kids to libraries before kindergarten.
Meanwhile, the Association of Community College Trustees is reconsidering its curriculum. Many Head Start workers and early childcare providers are graduates of community colleges.
"There are examples all around the country of programs that are doing a much better job with the resources they have available," says Russ Whitehurst, assistant secretary of education in charge of research. The first scientist to hold that job, Mr. Whitehurst is one of several new appointees who are researchers with a background in science instead of education.
"We'd like to see what can be done with the money we currently have," said Whitehurst in an interview. "As we need more money to advance the cause, I'm sure we'll be asking for it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor