The federal government is gearing up to launch a nationwide research project that will test the effectiveness and feasibility of implementing a kind of “Head Start” program for children from birth to age 3.
The announcement of the effort followed the release last week of two independent studies--one by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one by the University of Miami--that depicted the depth of the crisis among the at-risk population the project will target.
Babies born to mothers with less than 12 years of formal education--nearly one-fourth of all American children--are four times more likely to become mentally retarded than children with better-educated mothers, the studies found.
Starting in 1997, Project begin will provide intensive day-care services to several thousand healthy infants who are at risk of becoming mentally retarded in hopes of improving their cognitive function.
The effort will identify 5,000 children in 10 cities whose mothers did not graduate from high school. The project sites have not been chosen.
Half the children will then participate in a previously tested early-intervention program from birth to age 3, while the other half will not. The C.D.C. will follow the progress of both groups into early adulthood.
“I believe this nation can make a difference in the lives of children by helping to facilitate their early health and learning environments,” Dr. David Satcher, the executive director of the C.D.C., wrote in announcing the project in last week’s American Journal of Public Health. The journal also published the C.D.C. study.
Dr. Edward Brann, a physician and the director of Project begin, said it “will determine whether a particular early-intervention model from birth to age 3 is effective and at what cost.”
The C.D.C. would transfer its authority over the project to another agency if a policy decision were ever made to implement a widespread federal program for infants, he added.
Making a Difference
Mr. Brann said the C.D.C.'s working hypothesis is that intervention makes a significant difference in the children’s success later in life.
During Project begin’s first year, Mr. Brann said, experts will make weekly home visits to mothers, focusing on such factors as positive parent-child interaction and cognitive development. During the second two years, home visits will continue, but the children will also be enrolled in a stimulating, full-day, year-round child-development center.
Rebecca Fewell, the director of the University of Miami’s Debbie Institute for disabled children and a Project begin planner, also said she expected results. “If you get in and start working with babies born to mothers with less than 12 years of education, you can probably make a difference,” she said.
The project is reminiscent of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, which enrolled a much smaller group of 3- and 4-year-olds in a high-quality preschool. Researchers then tracked the children into adulthood, comparing them with a control group that did not participate in a preschool program.
Though he had not seen either study, or the project proposal, David P. Weikart, the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., said the project sounded intriguing.
“My overall reaction is that it seems like an interesting thing,” he said.
But he cautioned that the researchers on the new project should consider the problems encountered in previous studies. Some early-intervention programs that stopped at age 3 have failed to yield long-term educational or social benefits, he said.
Citing the Ford Foundation’s Fair Start program from the early 1980’s, Mr. Weikart noted that the program improved children’s health and nutrition but did not show any other long-term gains.
Researchers attempting such a large-scale venture “will have to start from the new plateau,” he said.
Success, he added, will depend on the details: the services offered to children, the assessment methods, and the experience of the researchers in the field of human services.
The C.D.C. and University of Miami studies will help shape the research project.
Though the results were not surprising, said one of the authors of the C.D.C. report, they confirmed and quantified the strong link between maternal education and mental retardation.
Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, an epidemiologist, added that the C.D.C. study will also help dispel the notion that mentally retarded people have genetic disorders. In most cases, she said, people who grow up to be mildly retarded are born healthy.
The C.D.C. study examined the records of 1,074 mentally retarded 10-year-olds, and compared them with 650 children with normal I.Q.'s.
It revealed a higher prevalence of mild mental retardation among black children than among white children, and attributed half of the difference to the generally lower economic status and education level of black mothers.
The authors said the remaining difference could be caused by the higher prevalence of certain medical conditions and environmental hazards in the black population, such as anemia, diabetes, and lead exposure.
Links With Education
Keith Scott, a behavioral psychologist, reviewed the birth and school records of 30,000 Dade County 10-year-olds for the University of Miami study.
He found that low-birthweight babies whose mothers also had less than 12 years of schooling were eight times more likely to become mentally retarded. Iron deficiency in such a child increased the risk of mental retardation by another third.
The study also showed that the presence of a father during a child’s infancy can have a profound effect on cognitive development. Children whose fathers were not listed on their birth records were 1.5 times more likely to need special education later.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 1995 edition of Education Week as U.S. To Pilot ‘Head Start’ For Infants 0-3