Published Online:

Head Start Faces A New Round of Political Scrutiny

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

WASHINGTON--The impact and potential of Head Start--which have never been easy to gauge scientifically--are being questioned with new vigor just as the program stands poised for further expansion.

The popular federal preschool program for poor youngsters has long been hailed as a success by early-childhood-education experts, who cite its educational, health, and social benefits for preschoolers and their parents. In recent years, it has also drawn increasing support from business leaders who see early-childhood education as a way to help shore up the nation's economic productivity.

One of Head Start's strongest proponents is President Clinton, who has proposed boosting Head Start funding by $10 billion over the next five years, with the goal of reaching all eligible children.

Mr. Clinton's vote of confidence, however, has sparked an emotional debate over how well the program can meet its mandate while adding more children--a concern that has also been highlighted by one of Head Start's founders and by new and old studies on its effectiveness cited in a spate of news reports.

"The debate is between those who want to fix the program before expanding it, and those who want to expand it and later fix it,'' says Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

Critics and supporters alike agree that Head Start's rapid expansion in recent years, combined with an increased demand for services and an increasingly complex set of family needs, has strained the capacity of program managers, staffs, facilities, and transportation.

They also voice concern about research suggesting that children's early cognitive gains from Head Start often fade by the 3rd grade.

But supporters maintain that program quality could be improved by devoting more attention to training, monitoring, and staff salaries. They also suggest Head Start could yield stronger gains if its services were extended to the full day and full year and offered to children younger and older than the 3-to-5-year-old age range the program now targets.

"There is nothing wrong with Head Start that cannot be fixed by what is right about it,'' Sarah M. Greene, the chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association, wrote in a March 19 statement responding to recent news articles that she characterized as critical of Head Start.

The program's sharpest critics, meanwhile, such as John Hood, the research director of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., argue that policies such as welfare reform and school choice would go further in helping poor families and poor schools than Head Start can.

"In the ideal world, you would take the evidence and say, 'How can we redesign that program or make it better?' '' Mr. Hood said. But, he added, "even a program as photogenic as Head Start has to be judged in the context of limited resources.''

Observers agree, though, that the Head Start debate offers a rare opportunity to educate policymakers about the complexity of offering high-quality early-childhood programs on a large scale.

If the discussion "can help focus the debate'' in that direction, said David Weikart, the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, "these are very appropriate issues to help the Congress in appropriating funds.''

Critical Data

The momentum for expansion did not start with the Clinton Administration. Under President Bush, Head Start saw big gains in funding; its budget has doubled since 1987.

In fiscal 1992, the program was funded at $2.2 billion and served 622,000 children.

But a focal point of the current debate are two as-yet-unpublished studies from the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department suggesting that fewer children and families have received some program benefits than has been reported, and that some grantees are already having difficulty meeting the demands of expansion.

Based on a review of the records of 3,100 children in 80 centers in 1992, one of the draft studies shows that only 43 percent of the youngsters were fully immunized against childhood diseases, in contrast to the 88 percent cited by the Administration for Children and Families.

The records also showed that lower percentages of children than the A.C.F. reported had all of their medical and dental needs met, and that many grantees could not meet all of families' social-service needs. But the draft report concedes some of its findings may be linked to incomplete record-keeping rather than poor program quality, and an H.H.S. spokeswoman said last week she believes that to be the case.

The other draft study shows that in 1992 grantees frequently had trouble securing adequate facilities, recruiting qualified workers, and providing transportation.

Edward F. Zigler, a Yale University psychologist who helped found Head Start and who now heads Yale's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, has argued that an erosion in "quality control'' over the years has led to a "great variation in quality'' among Head Start centers. He cites such problems as cuts in regional support staffs, inadequate monitoring, poor facilities, and low staff salaries.

The rapid increase in funding and in children served has "taken a system that is fragile in some places and simply inundated it,'' said Mr. Zigler, who urged that any further expansion be guided by a "careful plan'' to address quality issues and bolster management training.

He also suggested that poor programs be placed on "probation'' before new children are added.

Not an Excuse

The program's backers say they have long pointed out--and sought support to remedy--the problems now cited by critics. Concerns about competing demands for quality and expansion were underscored, for example, in a report issued by an expert panel in 1990 to mark Head Start's 25th anniversary.

Head Start advocates also cite changes in the law in recent years, such as setting aside funds to improve program quality and allowing grantees to purchase facilities, as steps in the right direction.

The current debate "can be an opportunity'' for improvement, said Helen Blank, a senior program associate with the Children's Defense Fund. But it should not jeopardize expansion, she said, because Head Start still plays an important role in insuring that "children who are poor get to the schoolhouse door in a much better place.''

"We stand ready to take a leadership role,'' Ms. Greene of the Head Start association said, in reviewing management issues and "expanding the program in a way that is more responsive to the needs of this generation of children.''

Meanwhile Mr. Zigler, fearing that his "constructive'' criticism has been miscast by opponents of the program, joined other early-childhood leaders recently in sending a letter to Congress in support of the expansion.

"The fact that some Head Start programs need improvement cannot and should not be used as an excuse for delaying, whittling down, or opposing the President's effort,'' the letter stated.

An upcoming Education Department study based on observations of various preschool settings may also shed light on the debate. While noting similarities between Head Start and other early-childhood programs, it is expected to show there was less variability in quality--and that on average quality was slightly higher--in the Head Start programs.

While acknowledging concerns about uneven quality, Avis Lavelle, an H.H.S. spokeswoman, defended Head Start's record last week and said Mr. Clinton's proposal would help "shore up'' problem areas.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala also pledged at a recent Congressional hearing to "pay close attention to the strain expansion could place'' on quality and management.

A Lasting Boost?

Of greater concern than operational issues, critics say, is evidence that the academic boost Head Start gives children does not last.

A 1985 è.è.ó. analysis of Head Start research concluded that while children in the program enjoyed significant cognitive gains initially, within a few years of starting school their performance was generally not superior to their disadvantaged peers who had not attended Head Start.

Another target of recent criticism are frequently cited "cost-benefit'' figures highlighting the presumed long-term benefits of Head Start in the form of reductions in delinquency, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, and other social problems.

In his address last month to a joint session of Congress, for example, President Clinton asserted that "for every dollar we invest [in Head Start] now, we'll save three tomorrow.''

In a 1989 review of preschool research, however, Ron Haskins, a Republican aide to the House Ways and Committee, noted that the only "thorough benefit-cost studies to date'' come not from Head Start but from the Perry Preschool study, a highly controlled early-intervention project led by the High/Scope foundation.

Mr. Haskins and others acknowledge that some studies, while less definitive, do suggest Head Start helps reduce future grade retention and placement in special education.

Head Start advocates also cite studies showing the program produces significant health and nutritional benefits for children and has lasting positive effects on parents, families, and communities.

Ray Collins, a former H.H.S. official who now runs a Vienna, Va., consulting firm, concedes that longitudinal data tied specifically to Head Start are limited.

But he argues that some of the studies demonstrating lasting benefits of high-quality early-childhood programs were based on programs similar to Head Start.

Mr. Collins also contends that some of the more negative data on Head Start came from studies conducted before it changed from a summer to school-year program and before performance standards were adopted.

Some analysts suggest, however, that all of the data now being discussed should raise caution against overselling Head Start's benefits.

Not an 'Inoculation'

"I am at the very least dubious whether we can have a large-scale national preschool program that can produce the kind of long-term results advocates are claiming for it,'' Mr. Haskins observed.

While Mr. Haskins cites the need for better research on which to base expansion decisions, Mr. Hood of the John Locke Foundation argues that it would make more sense to focus on other interventions.

Mr. Hood said a voucher system is needed, for example, to "force schools into making changes,'' rather than trying to "shift the blame'' by advocating more and better preschool programs.

He also argues for welfare reforms aimed at altering family behaviors.

"What we really want,'' he said, "is a system that discourages single-parent families, teenage motherhood, and families not based around a stable wage-earner.''

The program's supporters counter that they never promoted Head Start as a cure for poverty and that some expectations placed on it have been unrealistic.

"We have been expected to fill in for a failed health-care system, substitute for grossly inadequate social and mental-health services, and inoculate children against an education system that too often reflects 'savage inequalities,' '' Ms. Greene said.

"We have this odd theory that we can change a child's life almost completely by a five-hour intervention for seven months in one year,'' said Mr. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute, who believes expansion should be focused not on adding children but on providing full-day, year-round services and adding adult-literacy and job-training components for parents.

President Clinton's economic-stimulus plan calls for $500 million for a summer Head Start program.

And Mr. Zigler also advocates providing Head Start-like services from birth to age 3 and during the early elementary grades.

"Why shouldn't there be 'fade out' when you don't follow up with any programs?'' he said.

'Validated' Approach

Mr. Weikart of High/Scope also maintains that using a "specific and systematic'' instructional approach validated by research could bolster long-term gains. Such a system, he said, should train and supervise teachers and address everything "from the way the room is organized to how adults talk with children, how aides are used, and what kinds of materials are made available.''

But he and others caution strongly against basing judgments of Head Start solely on I.Q.-test gains.

While Head Start's contributions are "not always very measurable,'' said Mac McKeever, the grantee deputy director for the Genesee County (Mich.) Community Action Agency's Head Start program, he gauges success by "how many children are able to adjust and have positive self-esteem.''

Child-care and education advocates stress that the debate on Head Start should not overlook the need to improve and expand a whole range of child-care and early-education options, including public school preschools. But Ms. Blank of the C.D.F. argued that Head Start's comprehensive-service approach should be the "foundation'' for such efforts.

Mr. McKeever said his Flint, Mich., program has identified 18,000 children who qualify by virtue of their parents' welfare status, but it can serve only 1,700 children next year. He said it would help if grantees had more time to plan for expansion and more flexibility to address concerns about quality.

"But we need the money,'' he said, "and we are willing to make it work no matter how we get it.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories