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Examining Head Start: Expand the Program--By Revamping Chapter 1

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One of Head Start's founders, Edward Zigler, has co-authored a book on the program's history and future course that will be published early next month. In it, he calls Head Start "the most important social and educational experiment of the second half of the 20th century''--and offers the following controversial proposal for extending its benefits beyond early education:

From the earliest evaluations of Head Start, it was clear that the program did not last long enough, and the most recent research confirms the same finding. It is hard to change a child's growth trajectory; a summer is certainly insufficient, and a program of one or two year's duration is not enough for the children at greatest risk. If more disadvantaged children who get a "head start'' are to stay ahead, what is really needed is a plan for services that extend from birth through at least grade 3.

... [W]e are not recommending that Head Start actually provide the extra services for school-age children. Rather, we propose that the schools pick up two of the most important pieces of the Head Start model, parent involvement and comprehensive services, in order to sustain the gains made by Head Start children when they enter school. Furthermore, ... we suggest that since Congress has already allocated the funds necessary to pay for this recommendation, it just needs to revamp an existing program.

The recognition that Head Start did not last long enough led to the creation of Project Follow Through in 1967. Project Follow Through was intended to be a large-scale service delivery program that extended Head Start's comprehensive services through the early primary grades. In addition, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was meant to provide federal funds to the nation's poorest school districts so they could improve the education delivered to low-income children from preschool through high school. With both of these programs in place, the nation would seem to have the necessary components for sustaining the progress made by Head Start through the school years.

Unfortunately, for different reasons, neither Follow Through nor Title I fulfilled this expectation. Follow Through never became a national program and now represents a tiny experiment in the U.S. Education Department conducted in a mere 40 schools throughout the entire country. Although evaluations of individual Follow Through curriculum models indicate that some are quite successful, dissemination of their methods is barely funded, the program is far too small to make a difference, and the project has been threatened with termination so often that it is no longer taken seriously in educational and political circles. Furthermore, while the initial Follow Through model was meant to offer comprehensive services identical to those in Head Start, today the project operates primarily to demonstrate innovative curricula.

Unlike Follow Through, Title I (now Chapter 1) has grown tremendously and now exists in over 90 percent of the nation's school districts. Individual schools use their Chapter 1 allocations at their discretion, so that there is no coherent "program'' that can be articulated, much less systematically evaluated to determine how well it works. However, the basis for Chapter 1's growth and political support appears to be that it has become a funding source for local schools rather than a proven educational treatment.

Chapter 1 lacks the essential components of a successful intervention program--comprehensive services, parent involvement, innovation, and evaluation. In fact, Chapter 1 was never meant to provide comprehensive services but rather to correct "educational deprivation.'' The primary Chapter 1 strategy has been to offer more instructional time to low-achieving students. But without the comprehensive services required to put a child in a position to benefit from extra instruction, attempts to drill children on academic skills are an empty exercise.

Chapter 1 has also flip-flopped on the issue of parent involvement. While initially the law that established Title I paid little attention to a role that parents should play, more recent legislation calls for an expanded role for parents without indicating the means for their involvement.

After pouring billions of dollars into Chapter 1 for over two decades, Congress is finally demanding an outcome evaluation of the program. But one wonders if the evaluation studies come too late to instigate change in the long-established programs. While there is not much data on the effectiveness of Chapter 1, policymakers have ignored the results that do exist, namely that participating students do not exhibit meaningful improvements in achievement levels. With over $6 billion in annual funds, Chapter 1 has received three to four times the financial resources of Head Start and has yet to prove its worth empirically.

Another problem is that Chapter 1 funds are not targeted very effectively. Although its budget is huge, the money is apportioned in most school districts to serve students across school years, with 80 percent of the funds spent on preschool through grade 6. In addition, more than half of the children served are "educationally deprived,'' meaning that they score poorly on achievement tests but are not necessarily poor.

Given the problems that have plagued both Follow Through and Chapter 1, it is heartening to see a new demonstration program designed to address the transition from Head Start into the elementary school. The Head Start Transition Project, based on legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, is establishing its first demonstration sites in each state. Briefly, the Head Start Transition Project is designed to accomplish what Follow Through hoped to do, namely ease the transition for children from Head Start to kindergarten through grade 3. When each Head Start child enters kindergarten, the child's parent, Head Start teacher, and kindergarten teacher will meet to discuss the child's transition. Both Head Start and the school will work with community agencies to ensure that comprehensive health and social services are available to the children and their families throughout the primary grades. Provisions are also built in to ensure parent involvement and program evaluation.

If the evaluation of the Head Start Transition Projects is favorable, we recommend that Congress consolidate both the Follow Through program and the new Transition Projects into a new Chapter 1 Transition Project. That is, the recommendation is to put aside the ineffectual educational model of Chapter 1 and adopt on a large scale the proven model of Head Start.

The current Head Start Transition Project is one attempt to move Head Start's valuable lessons into the school, but it is unlikely that the federal government will soon find the money to extend the program to all poor children. Chapter 1 already serves many of the nation's poorest children, but not very well. Moving the Transition Projects and Follow Through into Chapter 1 would create a program with enough resources to make a major difference in the lives of low-income children.

In order to ensure that every Head Start graduate has access to the proposed Chapter 1 Transition Projects, we recommend that at least half of the funds be reserved for Head Start-eligible children. Head Start, including expanded Parent and Child centers, and the Chapter 1 Transition Projects would then be two parts of a coherent federal policy to meet the needs of poor children from birth through grade 3.

From Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment, by Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow. Copyright 1992 by Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow. Reprinted by permission of BasicBooks, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

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