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Making Head Start Work

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As Congress tries to complete new authorizing legislation in time for Head Start's 30th anniversary next year, the Clinton Administration is poised to get serious about improving and maintaining the quality of the nation's Head Start programs. The 47-member Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion has provided a vision of Head Start as a program that strives for excellence as it expands to serve more children and families. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.) As this vision is translated into reality, it is good to consider what constitutes quality in this undertaking and what high-quality Head Start programs can mean to us all.

The importance of Head Start to the nation's future is clear. According to the High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 27, high-quality Head Start programs could prevent crime, improve standards of living, and in so doing return to taxpayers over seven dollars for every dollar originally invested. Instead of 35 percent of adults born in poverty being arrested five or more times, high-quality Head Start programs could reduce the rate to 7 percent. Instead of only 7 percent of adults born in poverty earning $2,000 or more per month, 29 percent of them could. By spending $12,000 per participant on two years of high-quality early education for each person born in poverty, taxpayers could save over $80,000 through reduced costs of crime, special schooling, and welfare assistance. Here is a case where helping others is clearly in our self-interest.

What's the catch? As good as today's Head Start programs are, the requisite standards of quality have yet to become the rule in them. Every Head Start program in the country must enable young children to be active learners who make decisions and take the initiative to achieve success. Such abilities put them on the road to becoming law-abiding, productive citizens.

To achieve program quality, teachers and parents must help young children initiate, design, and carry out their own learning activities rather than memorize the lessons that adults set for them. Teachers and parents remain responsible for setting limits and providing guidance, but recognize that self-discipline, rather than externally imposed discipline, is the basis of civilized society even for young children. How can we expect young people to "just say no'' to drugs and crime if they haven't practiced saying no and yes appropriately throughout their lives?

In high-quality Head Start programs, parents are partners with teachers in contributing to young children's development. In this partnership, the teacher is the expert on principles of child development, while the parent is the expert on the individual child's personality, family experience, and history. It is the collaboration of these experts that makes the program work. While families certainly need help in coping with illiteracy, unemployment, drug abuse, and hopelessness, Head Start's special role is to help parents contribute to their children's development.

Trained, qualified early-childhood teachers create high-quality Head Start programs. Teaching staff need systematic in-service training that enables them to observe young children developing, respond appropriately, and initiate activities that fit children's developmental levels. They need training in how to help parents contribute to young children's development. Leaders in every Head Start agency must be prepared to conduct systematic training that focuses on improving the staff's teaching performance. These leaders should show and explain to teachers how to engage in methodical teaching practices, observe them implementing these practices, provide them with advice on their performance, and conduct follow-up training to deal with the issues that arise. Well-trained Head Start teachers should receive appropriate professional salaries and benefits.

Head Start has an important leadership role in the early-childhood field. It spends more per child than most public school preschool or private child-care programs. The extra cost is due to Head Start's continuing effort to provide quality. If any early-childhood program has the quality necessary to return over seven dollars for every dollar invested, it is a far better investment than a cheaper program with no financial return.

Some commentators worry that the findings of the High/Scope Perry Preschool study have set expectations too high for Head Start. The High/Scope Perry program, they say, was a special program that the government can't duplicate on a large scale. Now that the federal government has renewed its commitment to maintain and improve the quality of Head Start programs, Head Start has the opportunity to prove these naysayers wrong. With well-trained teachers working with parents to contribute to young children's development, Head Start can achieve its potential as the nation's first and finest program to prepare young children for school and for life.

Lawrence J. Schweinhart is the chairman of the research division and David P. Weikart is the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation; they are co-directors of the High/Scope Perry Preschool study.

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