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Head Start Is Urged To Reassess Research Needs

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Washington

As it moves into its fourth decade, the Head Start program for disadvantaged preschoolers should rethink its research needs for the future, a new federally funded report concludes.

"Head Start was not designed primarily to meet the child-care needs of full-time, full-year employed parents," the report says. "Nor was it conceived to address problems of community violence, provide literacy and job training for parents, or ensure that the full complement of health services is provided to young children."

"On the other hand," the authors write, "Head Start's comprehensive mandate to improve the life chances of children living in poverty takes on new meaning as the composition of the poverty populations and the conditions of these children's lives undergo dramatic changes."

The report was produced by the Board on Children, Youth, and Families, a panel convened by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, two arms of the National Academy of Sciences, a Washington-based, nonprofit institution with a congressional charter. are these federal, federally chartered, quasi-federal?gc The report stems from a series of workshops held by the board's 25-member Roundtable on Head Start Research, which included prominent researchers, Head Start directors, federal officials, and educators.

The panel proposes a specific research agenda to guide the federal anti-poverty program in an era of changing economic and social landscapes. Among the group's recommendations are calls for:

  • Studies that assess instructional practices in Head Start classrooms where students speak several languages;
  • A multisite, community-based study to assess the extent to which immigrant status and migrant status are barriers to participation in Head Start;
  • Research on what community resources Head Start centers offer families, how well they provide those services, and their effects on children and families;
  • A study of the prevalence and chronic nature of the violence to which Head Start children and staff members are exposed in their communities and assessments of the toll that it takes on them;
  • Program models that focus on the role Head Start can play in violence prevention;
  • Studies identifying cost-effective approaches to providing for the child-care needs of full-time, full-year, working Head Start parents; and,
  • Data collection on the extent to which families in the program rely on public assistance and other sources of income and studies that compare those statistics with similar data for nonparticipating families.

Broader Studies

The panel also calls for research to examine why innovations in one Head Start program do not seem to transfer to others and what strategies might help programs better share good ideas.

The report was intended in part to build on a 1993 Department of Health and Human Services paper that called for a long-term research plan for Head Start that places it in the broader context of research on young children, families, and communities.

"The basic problem was that 30 years ago we only looked at a small trickle of the effects of the program--IQ and achievement," said Sheldon H. White, a Harvard University psychology professor and the chairman of the study panel. But the program's effects were in practice much more wide-ranging, extending to the families and communities of children as well as the children themselves.

"What we set out first to do is talk about a systematic way of looking at family effects," he added.

For More Information:

Copies of "Beyond the Blueprint: Directions for Research on Head Start's Families," are $17 each plus shipping charges ($4 for the first copy, 50 cents for each additional copy) from the National Academy Press, (800) 624-6242; ISBN 0-309-05485-0.

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