What should a child know and when should he know it? This is not a trick question, but how you answer it may depend on how you think money should be spent on the Head Start program.
Last week President Bush asked Congress to spend more money on teacher training programs and $45 million over five years for research on child literacy programs. He wants to find out whether the common standards mandated by law in 1999 are working for the approximately 900,000 children in Head Start. Knowing at least 10 letters of the alphabet as well as developing language skills were mandated as necessary preparation for elementary-school reading.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, who been an ally of the president on education issues, split with him over this message. He thinks the administration's reach is too short, that it did not provide enough money for all the children to meet the minimum standards.
At issue here is considerably more than money. It's about what works for kids. There are lots of theories out there, but no sure things. Why should a child know only 10 letters? What about delayed learners and talkers for whom tests can't measure "catch-up" abilities. At what age can a child be tested with any accuracy? What teaching methods are best?
John Gardner of Harvard thinks different children have different ways of learning, and he calls this the "multiple intelligence theory." This is provocative, and naturally it's controversial.
Behind his theory is the idea that it's less important how smart a child is than exactly how a child is smart. The professor wants to know a child's specific strengths. He argues that traditional definitions for intelligence, which measure verbal, mathematical and visual abilities, are limited, and learning concepts should be extended to include the whole body as well as psychological sensitivities and musical talent.
Television programmers, always on the lookout for new and younger audiences, are using such theories to increase the numbers of tots in front of the tube. Preschoolers, who spend more hours watching television than any other group of children, are the latest group targeted by the media giants.
Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom Inc. and Walt Disney Co., is aggressively competing for the under-6 market. "By wrapping themselves in pedagogical virtue," reports the Wall Street Journal, "the executives hope to have a better chance of winning over the parents."
But parents may find these program designers suffering from their own linguistic deficits as they appeal to the "bodily-kinesthetic intelligence" and "metacognitive awareness" of preschoolers. It may also be helpful for parents to learn that Professor Gardner himself exiled television from his house until his youngest child was 10. "A week in the real world is worth 10 years watching television," he says.
Nickelodeon tests its stories at preschools and day-care centers around the country before putting them into production. They want to know how the 5- or 6-year-olds will respond. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen didn't do that, and I'll put "Rumpelstiltskin" against "Dora the Explorer" any day.
In the name of full disclosure, I should note that I frequently watch television with two friends of mine, ages 3 and 6. I've discovered that some of the shows aren't bad, but it helps the kids if an adult engages them about what's happening on the screen. Otherwise the experience appeals to sloth and passivity. For all the cuteness of dancing letters and neon numbers, most learning requires work and active engagement. In real school, books don't sing and dance. They also require longer attention spans.
Reading fairy tales to children is better yet, infinitely challenging them in their interpretations of personal experience. I particularly like a new version of the "Three Little Pigs," written from the point of view of the wolf, who doesn't think he should be maligned for eating a pig or two.
Pulled pork on a bun is tasty, particularly with a Memphis sauce. Mr. Wolf explains that he sneezed inadvertently, and the straw house fell down and killed the pig, so why shouldn't he eat the pig. It was already dead, anyway.
When I asked one of my young friends what he thought of that, he said he agreed with the wolf: "It seemed like a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there." I don't know how that answer would be measured on a standardized test or be counted on a multiple-intelligence scoreboard, but it seems to me that's the kind of out-of-the-box thinking Head Start ought to encourage.