Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Magic of Head Start

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Magic of Head Start

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A Survey of Recent Articles

It's hard to find a federal program more popular than Head Start. Especially since the end of the Reagan administration, it has enjoyed bipartisan favor, with its budget quadrupling to $6.2 billion. So it is surprising to be reminded that there's very little empirical evidence that the program actually does give a head start to the underprivileged preschoolers it serves.

President George W. Bush has now proposed moving the program from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to the Department of Education and increasing Head Start's emphasis on teaching language skills. (He has also proposed a two percent budget increase.) That has touched off a debate about what Head Start should be asked to do.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson launched Head Start in 1965 as part of his War on Poverty, the goal was to give economically disadvantaged children a leg up by providing a range of educational, medical, social, and psychological services so that they could enter kindergarten on a more equal footing with their better-off peers. Today, Head Start serves more than 800,000 preschoolers--about half the eligible population.

"The jury is still out on Head Start," notes economist Janet Currie of the University of California, Los Angeles, in her survey of research on early childhood education programs in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Spring 2001). There's never been a large-scale, long-term study of Head Start children (though HHS is now planning one). One reason: There's no single Head Start; the roughly 1,500 Head Start programs are locally administered. Also, such studies are costly and difficult. The children (including a non-Head Start control group) would have to be tracked over many years to determine whether Head Start had any measurable effects on their school performance or other aspects of their lives. Other influences, such as differences in family income and parents' marital status, would have to be taken into account.

The research that does exist tends to point to one conclusion: Head Start's academic effects fade out as kids grow older. A 1990 Educational Testing Service study, for example, found that involvement in the program "had positive effects on both verbal test scores and measures of social adjustment." But by the end of second grade, the Head Start kids were statistically indistinguishable from their peers.

That's where today's debate begins: What's responsible for the apparent "fadeout," and what should be done about it?

Two sides of the argument are presented in Education Matters (Summer 2001, online at David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University, says that the fade-out should come as no surprise. "The giants of earlychildhood development," such as Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, all agreed on at least one thing: Children's minds develop in stages, and they're not equipped "until the age of five or six" to reason their way through reading and math. It's far more important for young children "to explore and conceptualize" by "seeing, touching, and handling new things and ... experiencing new sensations." In Elkind's view, it "makes little sense to introduce formal instruction in reading and math" to preschoolers, and it's "simplistic" to think that early schooling will give disadvantaged youngsters "the skills and motivation to continue their education and break the cycle of poverty. …

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