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'Fade-Out' in Head Start Gains Linked to Later Schooling

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New Orleans

By the time they reach the 8th grade, children who have taken part in the federal Head Start program for disadvantaged preschoolers are more likely than their other peers to attend "lower quality'' schools, suggests a new national study.

The authors said their findings are significant because they point to one possible reason why the academic and social benefits students gain from the widely respected preschool program tend to "fade out'': the inadequacy of their subsequent schooling.

"Early on, the claims for Head Start were that it would 'inoculate' children against poverty,'' said Valerie Lee, a University of Michigan education professor and a co-author of the study. "Come on--nine months of colored blocks is going to make that much of a difference?''

The study, presented during the April 4-8 meeting here of the American Educational Research Association, is based on data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, or NELS, a federal research program begun in 1988 to track the educational status and progress of 25,000 8th-grade students in more than 1,000 schools nationwide.

Several studies over the years have shown that the cognitive gains that preschoolers make in the Head Start program tend to disappear by the time they reach the 3rd or 4th grade.

There is some evidence, however, that the social gains from the program tend to be more enduring, the University of Michigan study says.

The debate over the effectiveness of Head Start has heated up during the past year with the prospect of a new expansion of the program. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

Cause Long Suspected

Because the program serves the "poorest of the poor,'' experts have long suspected that the quality of former Head Start pupils' subsequent schooling may be one cause of the fade-out in academic gains that occurs. Until now, however, few studies have tried to document such a link, Ms. Lee said.

The research instead has focused on variations in program quality among Head Start sites or the lack of follow-through compensatory education as possible causes for the vanishing effects.

Ms. Lee's study, which was conducted with Susanna Loeb, a University of Michigan graduate student, looked at a subsample of 14,837 students from the NELS:88 study for whom complete parental information and preschool and middle school data were available. Of those students, 14.2 percent had attended a Head Start program, 42 percent had not attended any kind of preschool, and 43.7 percent had attended a preschool program other than Head Start.

To gauge the quality of the middle schools the students were attending in 1988, the researchers looked at the social composition of the schools, the academic achievement of students as measured by test questions embedded in the NELS:88 study, whether the schools were perceived as safe, and the quality of relations between students and teachers.

More so than schools attended by nonparticipants, Ms. Lee said, the schools of former Head Start pupils were "unsafe places where average achievement levels are low, the educational climate is unstimulating, educational resources are limited, and relations between staff and students are not harmonious.''

These inequities existed even after researchers adjusted the data to account for socioeconomic differences among the students.

Begun in 1965, Head Start has long enjoyed bipartisan political popularity. President Clinton, as President Bush did, is seeking a major expansion of the program.

"It's acceptable to somehow put money into Head Start--and maybe it's because poor children are cute when they're little--yet somehow we as a nation have allowed local control to explain why it is that we allow low-quality schools for our children who need it most,'' Ms. Lee said.

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