Education Commentary

Tinkering With Head Start

By Lisbeth B. Schorr — March 28, 2001 8 min read

President Bush’s determination to make Head Start into a reading program is rapidly polarizing those who should be working together to assure that all children will enter school with a decent chance of success—in school and in life. I believe the polarization arises because the easiest way to imagine what a Head Start reading program would look like (flashcards instead of toys, letter-recognition drills instead of trips to the dentist, ditto sheets instead of conversations) is unquestionably scary. But anyone alarmed by the idea of 3- year-olds in such a setting should be comforted by the research that makes very plain that if you care about kids being ready for school, that’s not how you go about it. Reading readiness, like school readiness, is more than a mechanical set of skills. Both the original vision of Head Start and the newest research show that the most effective ways (though perhaps not the quickest and cheapest way) to make Head Start into a reading program are entirely compatible with attention to children’s emotional, social, and health needs, and with their needs for nurturing and supportive adults in their lives. In fact, the most effective approaches to young children’s reading readiness actually require such multifaceted attention.

I have been a close observer of Head Start since the moment of its creation in 1964, based on this clear and simple idea: The federal government would enable local communities to provide poor and minority children with the early experiences that would equip them to start school on a par with their middle-class peers. No longer would they arrive at school with their lifetime chances already stunted.

Astonishingly, that vision has withstood the test of time, and has continued to evolve to reflect the radical changes of the last 35 years: in the nature of poverty and of family structure, in the rapid escalation of mothers entering the workplace, in our demands that formal education keep pace with new economic conditions, and in our understanding of the importance of the earliest years.

Today, as at several earlier points of Head Start’s evolution, a new administration threatens one of those swings of the pendulum that could demolish hard-won gains on one front in the hope of redeploying resources to achieve greater triumphs on another.

It doesn’t have to be that way. By applying what we have learned about “what works,” rather than focusing on ideological differences, we can reconcile superficially opposing views. No need to argue about whether our goal should be “school readiness” or “social competence,” child care for working parents or family literacy. Nor whether “parent involvement” or links to a “medical home” are better investments than “teacher quality.” These are not trade-offs in a zero-sum game, but essential complementarities in a new century’s responses to the challenge of assuring equal opportunity at the very beginning of life.

Three conclusions emerge from 35 years of Head Start research and experience:

  • A clear focus on school readiness, even reading readiness, is fully compatible with Head Start’s goals.

We have always known that poor children are at significant risk of failing in school, that school problems begin early, and that initial reading failure can lead to snowballing deficits in acquiring content knowledge. Head Start’s goal has always been to act on all we know to provide disadvantaged young children—and their families— with the boost they need to help children succeed in school and in life.

Now that we know in much greater detail than we did 35 years ago about the specifics of what it takes to achieve that goal, Head Start, and all programs for young children and families, must continue to add to the early-childhood toolbox.

  • School readiness is a many-splendored thing, which requires attention to physical, cognitive, and interpersonal development, and to family and neighborhood surroundings.

School readiness means immersing young children in environments that are safe, nurturing, stimulating, responsive, knowledge-centered, and rich in language.

This means immersing young children, including infants and toddlers, in environments that are safe, nurturing, stimulating, responsive, knowledge- centered, and rich in language. It means cultivating children’s natural curiosity and eagerness to learn. It means strengthening family and community capacity to support children’s developing competence.

We now know that all aspects of development affect one another. What goes into making children ready for school is far more than flashcards. Their teachers must be trained and supported in offering enriched language and literacy environments, and practice in using language for extended discourse. Their parents’ capacity must be expanded so that they can act more effectively on their commitment to their children’s education. In families where parents are impaired in caring for their children by depression, substance abuse, personality disorders, or domestic violence, programs must be able to mobilize prompt and competent help.

‘Reading readiness’ is not a narrow notion of recognizing letters, shapes, colors, and numbers, or reciting the days of the week.

Both research and experience demonstrate the importance of the early years for developing trust in relationships and the desire for mastery, and for learning to manage one’s impulses, to listen, take turns, and get along with others. “Reading readiness” is not a narrow notion of recognizing letters, shapes, colors, and numbers, or reciting the days of the week. Efforts to link children and families with the health care, nutrition, and other services they need cannot be allowed to compete with providing opportunities for parent involvement, for children to acquire the concepts that enable them to make sense of the world, or for encouraging children in the dramatic play that contributes to literacy and a rich vocabulary. Curiosity, cognition, and eagerness to learn flourish when they are shared and jointly enjoyed.

  • Enhancing the nation’s capacity to achieve these goals requires systematic harvesting of both research and experience to identify what works, and to apply that knowledge to improve outcomes for young children in the widely varied settings in which they spend their days.

No one now disputes the contention that Head Start and other comprehensive early-childhood programs designed on the Head Start model work. Nor would anyone contend that all Head Start programs, or all Head Start strategies, are equally effective in achieving agreed-upon goals. The challenge lies in identifying the essential elements of effectiveness.

In the earliest days of Head Start and of the Great Society, the growth of social programs was accompanied by demands from policymakers for systematic data to determine the efficacy of policies and programs, especially those serving populations without a lot of political clout. The assumption was that the results of “scientific” research and evaluation would ultimately be so precise as to allow social scientists to determine which programs and policies were worthy of the investment of public funds and citizen energies. Proven models would be described, disseminated, and ultimately cloned.

But this approach to social change could not endure. The evaluation results never arrived in time, and the research couldn’t provide sufficiently precise answers about what works, when, in what dosages, and for whom, to predetermine program, policy, and investment choices. Especially when the researchers were trying to use traditional methods (based on randomly assigned experimental and control groups) to assess complex, interactive, community-based programs, they couldn’t solve the problems of selection bias, attrition, small sample sizes, or the importance of “unobservables.” They couldn’t solve the ethical problems of withholding effective interventions from some, and the pesky tendency of good programs to change as they were adapted over time and in response to varying local circumstances.

Even more important, we belatedly learned that models crafted centrally—whether in universities, think tanks, or legislatures—and imposed from outside without regard to the beliefs and values of those implementing them were unlikely to work. Without local ownership, input, and adaptation, replications of centrally devised solutions were typically less effective than the original model. We learned that unless the local implementers believe in what they are doing, they are unlikely to be successful.

Now we are finally at the stage where we are achieving a balance.

We may not be able to promulgate a single best model, but we do recognize that there is substantial generalizable wisdom about what works.

We may not be able to promulgate a single best model, but we do recognize that there is substantial generalizable wisdom about what works that should inform community efforts—in the form of performance standards, in the form of technical assistance, and in the form of information to draw on.

Thus, the challenge is to learn all we can about everything that works to achieve the outcomes we seek. We must get better at understanding how the most effective programs work, and how their practices and strategies are best combined and continually improved. We must get better at identifying the attributes of effectiveness and high quality wherever they occur, and the elements of the infrastructure that sustain and support these attributes of effectiveness. We must zero in on reconciling local flexibility and community embeddedness with accountability for a few, carefully selected, face-valid measures.

Longtime supporters of giving children a head start (and a safe and healthy start) can join with those who seek to reduce the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots in the nation. And all of us can welcome the new administration’s determination to do whatever it takes to assure that every local community will have the tools and resources available so that all the nation’s children, regardless of race, income, or ethnic background, will arrive at school with a realistic chance of achieving the American dream.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Tinkering With Head Start