Consensus on Early-Childhood Needs Is Greeted by Enthusiasm, Skepticism

October 11, 1989 7 min read

By Deborah L. Cohen

Washington--Early-childhood experts reacted with both enthusiasm and skepticism last week to the consensus reached at last month’s education summit that more federal aid is needed to ensure that children enter school ready to learn.

“We’re all extraordinarily pleased and delighted to see this movement, but we’re skeptical about what it all really means,” said Sharon Lynn Kagan, associate director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. “Is this a question of substance, or the semblance of a commitment to children?”

Eugenia Bogus, president of the National Head Start Association, added, “We definitely have to be encouraged, but we hope they keep that commitment.”

Delivering on that commitment, observers said last week, will require not only boosting existing federal programs and backing early-childhood legislation, but forging comprehensive policies that address “the whole child.”

President Bush’s two-day meeting with the nation’s governors concluded with an agreement to launch a process for setting national educational goals. But in sessions both before and during the historic meeting in Charlottesville, Va., summit leaders generally were careful to sidestep discussions about the need for additional federal aid.

Mr. Bush noted in his major summit address, however, that governors had “stressed the high priority that helping prepare preschool children should have in federal spending, even in a time of fiscal constraint.”

And in closing the summit, the President said he and the governors had agreed that more federal support is needed “for the pre-kindergarten education process normally identified with Head Start” and that “other programs might fit that description.”

The summit’s recognition of the importance of the preschool years heartened experts last week. But they raised concerns about how to ensure needed levels of funding, coordination, and quality are maintained to make strong programs viable.

“In the blush of a two-day conference, it’s easy to say, ‘OK, let’s do this,”’ said Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale and a founder of Head Start. “But nobody has figured out how complicated it is.”

Focus on Quality

Children’s advocates said last week they hoped that, in the wake of the summit, federal officials would “put their money where their mouth is” by fully funding Head Start and backing other children’s programs, such as a child-care measure now pending in the Congress. (See story on page 23.)

According to the Head Start association, that program now serves about 450,000 children--only about 18 percent of those eligible--and would require an additional $6.8 billion to reach 80 percent.

The President and both houses of the Congress have proposed increases in fiscal 1990 Head Start funding, and child-care measures pending in the Congress would provide aid for child4care grants and tax credits in addition to boosting spending on Head Start.

But “the economic situation in Washington is so bad,” Mr. Zigler said, “that one doesn’t believe one will have the money until one sees it.”

“We don’t see any sort of commitment for the future” in statements made at the summit, said Don Bolce, information-services director for the Head Start association.

Advocates emphasized, however, that reaching all eligible children is not their only concern.

“Serving those children with high-quality services” must also be a goal, said Barbara A. Willer, a spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“This is being done in a highly charged political context, so there isn’t a careful analysis of how best to expand Head Start,” said Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. “The political pressure will be to cover a greater number of children.”

New Head Start money in the past 10 years has been directed primarily at efforts to increase the number of children served, Mr. Zigler noted, while “quality control” provisions have not kept pace with inflation.

Some Head Start programs “are excellent, some are God-awful, and some are in the middle,” he said.

In addition to halting the “erosion” in quality, he said, policymakers must grapple with how to link Head Start and child-care efforts with school-based preschool programs.

Mr. Zigler also warned that efforts focused solely on Head Start--a program aimed primarily at low-income youngsters--could foster a segregated early-childhood system. “Do we want a program where all poor kids go to one place--Head Start--and all the more affluent kids go somewhere else?” he asked.

Full Day, Higher Pay

Advocates also warned that Head Start and other part-day programs would miss the mark for the children of working parents.

“Unless we redefine early-childhood education to be truly available the full day for working families, it will be a continuation of partial responses,” said Fern Marx, a research associate at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

Experts also stressed that efforts to boost early-childhood programs must address teacher pay.

A 1987 survey by the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families found that the average Head Start teacher earned about $12,000 a year, and that half of the staff members in Head Start centers earned $10,000 or less. In some areas, the lure of higher-paying jobs has forced centers to close down or to cut the number of children served, observers noted.

“Our biggest concern is being able to attract and retain qualified staff,” said Mr. Bolce.

He added that funds for training “have stayed flat for the last six years” and program monitoring and technical assistance have declined.

‘Web of Support’

Some also cautioned that early childhood programs have been “oversold” based on positive results from such intensive efforts as the Perry Preschool Project conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“Early-childhood programs can help, but they can’t fight all the problems that face disadvantaged youth, whether it is drugs, crime, or family breakdown,” said Mr. Besharov. “The Perry Preschool results are simply not the kinds of results we are going to get nationwide.”

Recalling past studies that cast doubt on Head Start’s long-term benefits, Mr. Zigler noted that, if program quality is not assured, “somebody will do another follow-up study saying this program doesn’t work.”

“It’s like having a serum that cures people at full dose, but at half dose we don’t know what it does,” Mr. Besharov said.

Experts also stressed the need to support families and to address “the whole child.”

“We have to serve children and family needs regardless of whether they fit into our definition of education,” said Ms. Willer, who argued that programs should include health care, child care, and parental-involvement policies.

“There needs to be a continuous web of support that starts earlier and continues,” said Anne Mitchell, associate dean at Bank Street College of Education. “If it starts earlier and then leaves you in the lurch, that’s not better.”

John Jennings, counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee, also warned against cutting other education programs to pay for early-childhood programs. “There has to be a good-faith effort that one part of education won’t be robbed to pay for another,” he said, “but that additional money will be found.”

Need for Linkages Cited

Experts also said any strategy to emerge from the summit must link existing and new programs in a comprehensive system that offers families an array of options.

Communities need resources “to plan comprehensive systems” that draw on schools, community organizations, and profit and nonprofit groups, said Ms. Kagan.

“I would have liked to have heard their commitment be to high-quality early-childhood programs to all kids who need them, and in the form kids need,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Observers also noted that new federal early-childhood initiatives could prod states to set in motion or expand preschool programs.

In many states, “there has been a hesitancy to make a next move on child care and early-childhood development while we wait to see which way the federal government is going to go,” said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Because the “lion’s share” of early-childhood funding--unlike K-12 education--comes from such federal programs as Title XX, Chapter 1, and Head Start, he said, “there are more reasons not to move” until states know how much aid will be available and in what form.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Consensus on Early-Childhood Needs Is Greeted by Enthusiasm, Skepticism