Head Start: Where Does It Fit in Preschool Movement?

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Last August, the federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families commissioned a study of the degree to which state early-childhood-education initiatives work in concert with local Head Start programs.

What the researchers heard from some quarters was not encouraging.

They were greeted on several occasions, one researcher said, with this response: "Oh, is the Head Start program still around?''

The national program for disadvantaged preschoolers, introduced as a cornerstone of President Johnson's war on poverty 23 years ago, has survived four Administrations and is recognized in the early-childhood field as a model approach to the educational, physical, and emotional development of "at risk'' 3- to 5-year-olds.

But experts say the comment encountered in the federal research project underscores the challenges Head Start must confront if it is to maintain its stature--and accomplish its comprehensive mandate--at a time when states are funneling more dollars into public-school preschool programs.

They say it also highlights the need for schools to build on, rather than bypass, a preschool approach with a proven track record. "The two operative words are coordination and quality,'' said Dodie T. Borup, commissioner of the ACYF, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. "Nobody can do this job alone.''

Eight states and the District of Columbia now contribute funds to supplement or expand programs covered under Head Start, which funnels grants from regional federal offices to localities.

Since the program was enacted in 1965, however, state funding for pre-kindergarten programs has increased steadily.

Preliminary data from a study of public early-childhood programs, conducted by Wellesley College and the Bank Street College of Education, show that about 18 states have enacted some form of early-childhood legislation since 1980, bringing the number of states with such programs to about 24.

Observers link the trend to studies showing the benefits of early-childhood education for disadvantaged children and to the growing child-care needs of working mothers.

Fears that many children may be entering school unprepared to meet rigorous academic standards set by school reformers also have fueled the preschool movement.

According to the Wellesley study, about two-thirds of the state-funded programs are targeted at students considered at risk of failure, based on such factors as income, English proficiency, and school readiness.

"If you look at the motivations'' for the programs, said Anne W. Mitchell, co-director of the Public School Early Childhood Study, "a logical question is, 'Why don't we just expand Head Start?'''

Head Start administrators, early-childhood professionals, and state education officials say the answer is linked to turf battles, differing philosophies and teaching requirements, and poor planning in the early stages of state preschool programs.

But the debate raises broader questions, said Fern Marx, research director for the Wellesley study, about "how to deal with delivering services in productive ways to children at risk.''

Ample Room for Both

Public-school officials and Head Start advocates acknowledge that there are more than enough young children who qualify for both types of programs to go around.

With a $1.2-billion budget, Head Start currently serves 450,000 children--only 16 percent of the eligible population.

John M. Love, who conducted a 1987 study on Head Start recruitment and enrollment, said state spending on preschool programs equals only about a quarter of the federal Head Start budget.

"We're not at the point yet where one is supplanting the other,'' said Mr. Love, a senior research associate for the RMC Research Corporation.

Efforts are under way at both the federal and state level to improve linkages between Head Start and other state programs. But studies suggest the task has proved difficult.

According to preliminary results from the ACYF study, for example, Head Start programs are experiencing competition from state-funded programs over space, children, and staff members in more than three-quarters of the states.

The study, which will be published later this spring, is being conducted by the Education Development Center, a research firm that provides training and technical assistance to Head Start grantees in the agency's regional bureaus.

Long-Term Impact Feared

Head Start advocates do not perceive any imminent threat to the program, which they say fills a need unmet by other programs.

But they fear that Head Start's unique elements may not be carried over into the new initiatives unless the program assumes a more prominent role in state preschool measures being drafted or implemented.

In addition to its educational component, the program provides complete medical and dental examinations, nutritional meals, and social-services coordinators to work with families. It also has a strong parental-involvement component, which encourages parents to become volunteers and participate in all phases of the program.

"The essence of Head Start was strengthening the bond between families and children,'' said Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jacob Gould Shurman professor of human development, family studies, and psychology at Cornell University and a co-founder of Head Start.

He worries that other programs may use Head Start's "name without its contents.''
To Jim K. Matlack, executive director of the National Head Start Association, state preschool programs, which tend to be more focused on academics, are "not so much a threat to Head Start'' as they are to the provision of "quality, comprehensive services'' for all 4-year-olds.

He and other advocates argue that if schools take over the nurturance of young children--particularly those at risk--they should embody the principles of Head Start.

'Clear Research Base'

"There is a real clear research base that demonstrates we need to improve the educational achievement of poor kids, and Head Start is one of the few shining examples'' of how to achieve that goal, said Barbara Bowman, director of graduate studies at the University of Chicago's Erikson Institute.

Marie M. Oser, training coordinator for Child Inc., a Texas firm that administers a Head Start grant in Travis County, said education programs that overlook children's social and medical needs "have taken one single human being and bifurcated him into different systems.''

Some education groups, however, say that is precisely why schools should take the lead in providing early-childhood programs.

"We all have to get out of the mentality that education isn't going to talk to health, that it isn't going to talk to social services,'' said Carnie Hayes, director of federal-state relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Experts agree that the states whose preschool programs are in competition with Head Start are generally those in which advocates of the program have been least involved in the legislative process.

Some claim that gaining political clout has been difficult for Head Start advocates. But others say that the antipathy of some Head Start personnel toward school bureaucracies has led them to prefer to remain on the sidelines.

"Head Start has been so battered around and so damaged that very often they have taken the attitude that 'if we're quiet and nobody notices us, we can just go on and do what we have to do,''' said Ms. Oser.

Debate Over 'Smart Start'

Despite common goals, rifts between the two communities became apparent when Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, set out to draft an early-childhood-education bill.

The so-called "Smart Start'' proposal, which is expected to be introduced this month, aims to make high-quality preschools available to all 4-year-olds.

The measure would encourage state education departments and other preschool providers--including Head Start--to apply for matching grants to launch new programs or expand existing ones.

But although both the Head Start and public-education communities support the bill's goals, some are wary of its funding arrangement.

Under the measure, the U.S. Education Department--in consultation with the Health and Human Services Department--would disburse grants through an interagency committee appointed by each state's governor.

The committee, which would include representatives from state education and human-services departments, would decide which agency should administer the program.

The National Head Start Association voted in February not to support the proposal in part because of concerns about the distribution of the funds through the U.S. Education Department.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, on the other hand, has sent a letter to Senator Kennedy supporting the bill, but recommending that state education departments be designated to administer the programs "to be certain they are well-connected to the later years of schooling and to assure program continuity.''

But the bill was drafted expressly "to create a mechanism that forces the two groups to work together,'' an aide to Senator Kennedy said.

Because state, Head Start, and other community programs vary in their scope and effectiveness, the aide said, "it makes sense in an era of short funding ... to build on what's already begun.''

Interviews with education officials and Head Start administrators in several states indicate that such attempts at coordination have produced a patchwork of results.

Cooperation or Antagonism?

"Depending on the state or the locality, there is either great cooperation or, on the opposite end of the continuum, antagonism,'' said Mr. Matlack.

In Washington State, Head Start representatives were involved at the outset in reviewing the governor's proposal for an "early-childhood and education-assistance program,'' according to Larry B. Siroshten, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Committee of Clark County.

As a result, he said, the state-funded preschool program "was written and built in order to be equal to Head Start in comprehensiveness and in quality.''

In Massachusetts, Head Start representatives on a state interagency council that advises the board of education have been active in devising program and teacher-certification standards, said Carole S. Thomson, the education department's director of early-childhood programs.

She said several school districts that receive preschool funds under the state's "Chapter 188'' program contract with Head Start.

The law gives preference in the grant process to communities that link the funding of various agencies, and requires a detailed analysis of available services before programs are set up, she said.

'Not Highly Regarded'

In South Carolina, however, Head Start lacks a strong "institutional'' presence in the state's preschool program, said Janet E. Perry, an early-childhood consultant for the state education department.

Ms. Perry said discrepancies in the teaching and licensing requirements of the two types of programs--and an impression that local Head Start programs are "not highly regarded''--have thwarted districts from working with them.

Head Start administrators in South Carolina also maintain that a lack of consistency in the hours of operation and services offered by the programs has in some areas forced them into a competition with the state for children.

In Texas, which has one of the nation's largest state-funded preschool programs, the lack of a strong mechanism for coordination with Head Start has resulted in wide variability among programs, according to James M. Strickland, executive director of Child Inc.

He cited examples of preschool programs that work closely with Head Start programs and have "embraced the concept of working with the young child and the family.''

But in other instances, he said, preschoolers are "lined up in little rows with a wooden paddle hanging by the door and have none of these other special services.''

Links Here, Disparities There

The Texas legislature in its last session passed a bill to establish a model for better collaboration among agencies.

In California, which enacted its preschool legislation immediately following the launch of Head Start, the two programs are so closely linked, said Jack Hailey, a consultant with the Senate office of research, that "there are two places you can go for funds to do the same important job.''

Even among states with strong ties between programs, however, administrators say disparities in credentialing requirements and pay rates for teachers stir competition.

They also cite examples of Head Start centers vying with state programs for space in school buildings and other facilities.

"One of our biggest problems right now is finding adequate facilities,'' said Sarah M. Greene, a former president of the National Head Start Association and current chairman of the Florida State Pre-School Intervention Council.

No Longer 'Only Mode'

Early-childhood experts are in agreement in predicting that Head Start will have to rethink its role in order to exert a positive influence on the emerging state programs.

Head Start must view itself differently, said Ms. Bowman, than "when it was the only mode of service delivery for young children.''

As more children become involved in state preschool programs, she said, Head Start "has to change its role to one of leadership rather than trying only to serve the maximum number of children.''

At the same time, she added, state-funded programs should observe and draw on ideas from Head Start in such areas as parental involvement, "where public schools have tended to do less well.''

Head Start, said Mr. Siroshten of Washington State, can play a "continuing role in quality assurance; it doesn't have to be the big boy on the block.''

To help strengthen Head Start's role as a model, the ACYF is considering regulatory changes that would set minimum standards for child-staff ratios, class size, and teacher qualifications, according to agency officials.

Clennie Murphy, deputy associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau, said the ACYF is also eyeing more explicit rules for assessing community needs and targeting the "neediest'' children.

The ACYF's regional offices are also working to raise the program's visibility, said Ms. Borup, and agency representatives are included on an early-childhood task force formed by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Head Start officials note with optimism that as more children enter public kindergarten and prekindergarten programs, a greater proportion of those eligible for Head Start will receive some form of services.

But, says Mr. Murphy, if the programs do not meet children's full range of needs, "Head Start hasn't done its job.''

Vol. 07, Issue 28

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