A Study Sends President a Mixed Message Over Literacy Emphasis

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On best behavior: A police chief addresses a Head Start class in Mississippi

Reading is, as we all know, fundamental. It certainly is to President Bush, who has pushed hard for literacy programs for preschoolers. But a new study sends a mixed message to the White House as it formulates a plan to change Head Start programs from a loosely structured play-and-socialize format to one that emphasizes literacy. It turns out that while reading is critical to healthy early childhood development, parental involvement, medical care and good nutrition could be just as important.

The unprecedented 25-year study, prepared by the University of Wisconsin and published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, focused on Chicagoís 23 Head Start centers. But instead of the comparitively loosy-goosy curriculums found at most Head Start programs, the 1,500 Chicago children were subject to an intensive preschool environment that included training in reading and numbers skills as well as considerable parental involvement. Researchers found that the 1,000 children who were enrolled in the programs, were more likely than the other 500 kids, whose parents sent them to few or no preschool sessions, to finish high school and avoid getting involved in criminal activity. The children were also far less likely than their peers to repeat classes in school or to receive failing grades — and the benefits increased for children who spent more time in the programs. (The researchers were careful to ensure that the two groups had equivalent backgrounds, so that the results were not warped by the possibility that more motivated parents would be the ones who sent their children to the preschool programs.)

The study comes just as the administration is ranking its priorities for the nationís Head Start centers. Bush, who has said he will cut the Head Start budget, recently indicated he will move Head Start out of Health and Human Services' jurisdiction and into the Department of Education's. That move, critics worry, combined with a budget cut, could endanger the whole-child approach that proved so successful in the Chicago study.

That's a view shared by the study's lead author. "It's more than just providing basic literacy skills," Arthur J. Reynolds, a professor of social work at Wisconsin, told the New York Times. "You've got to put parents in classrooms, as well as kids."