Toward a Better Head Start

President Bush turned his attention back to education this week with a key addition to his efforts to "leave no child behind."

Preschool is the new theme, and the president's emphasis on it is needed. Volumes of research have shown that effective early education for 3- and 4-year-olds pays off in better school performance later – especially for children from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds.

The star in this field is the federally funded Head Start program, which has been around for 30 years and currently reaches some 850,000 preschool children. Mr. Bush wants to instill some of his "accountability" thinking in Head Start, to make sure youngsters leave the program with a basic knowledge of letters and numbers.

This initiative will meet resistance if it's perceived as an attempt to impose some kind of testing regimen on very young children. Preschoolers, after all, have key social skills to learn – like teamwork and listening – along with their ABC's.

Bush aides, however, are quick to point out that there'll be no testing, just regular teacher assessments and reports. In fact, the Bush plan would tie such assessments to continued federal funding.

That note of coercion may not be needed. The positive elements of the plan, particularly enhanced training for teachers, should themselves bring some freshness to tasks like learning the alphabet.

Where the Bush initiative falls short is its avoidance of the supply problem. Head Start only serves about 42 percent of the children eligible for it. And even at this size, the program has trouble finding enough teachers to staff its classrooms. The president and Congress should join forces to meet this overall need, too.

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