Panel Calls for Overall Strategy To Assess Head Start

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Washington--The effectiveness of the Head Start program will never be fully determined unless researchers use new strategies that recognize the diversity of the program's student population and of the local programs themselves, a new report by a federal advisory panel contends.

"An overall research strategy rather than a single large-scale study is the appropriate framework for addressing critical Head Start research questions," according to the report, "Head Start Research and Evaluation: A Blueprint for the Future."

The document was released here last week by the Advisory Panel for the Head Start Evaluation Design Project.

The report by a panel of 15 child-development and family-policy experts was commissioned by Wade F. Horn, the commissioner on children, youth, and families at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The document is designed as a blueprint for future studies of the 25-year-old preschool program for disadvantaged youth.

Although previous studies have shown that enrollment in a Head Start program can help children become ready for school, panelists concluded that those studies have been unable to examine the complex interactions between parents, Head Start professionals, and children that contribute to that overall success.

Any new study of the program should focus on "a new generation of questions that are much more specific and much more complex," Dr. Horn said at a briefing here.

The report lays out an overall strategy for future studies as well as general principles that panelists believe should underlie those studies. It also includes a series of recommendations for support activites that would be needed to perform such studies.

While Dr. Horn acknowledges that some of the report's recommendations may never be adopted because of "fiscal restraints," he termed it ''a report that can help drive a process that can usher in a new generation of Head Start."

The advisory panel contends that future studies of the Head Start program should answer two central questions about the program.

First, "Which Head Start practices maximize benefits for children and families with different characteristics under what types of circumstances?"

And second, "How are gains sustained for children and families after the Head Start experience?"

A common criticism of the generally well-received program is that its positive effects seem to dissipate, often by the time the graduates reach elementary school.

However, said Sheldon H. White, professor of psychology and education at Harvard University and a member of the panel, research to date has not made clear whether the program's benefits erode over time or if children who do not enroll in the program simply "catch up" to Head Start graduates.

The report adds that although numerous studies of Head Start have been conducted during the program's first quarter century, a lack of overall coordination has diluted their effectiveness.

Consequently, "what exists is a fractionated accumulation of studies that do not build upon one another," it states.

The report argues that a national, but locally based, program as large and diverse as Head Start is not8easily evaluated by large-scale, "one-shot" studies.

Within Head Start, the report notes, "programs are allowed and encouraged broad flexibilty in how they deliver the required component services."

"Moreover, Head Start programs serve children in different regions and subeconomies of American society," the report points out.

The use of independent, yet interlocking studies also would provide the "capacity for a cluster of studies to complement one another at a single point in time and to build upon one another in incremental stages over time," the report states.

Such an approach also would encourage the use of "diverse methodologies," but could be made sufficiently uniform by adopting a series of identical "marker variables."

The advisory panel suggests four directions that research should take in order to answer the two central questions it has posed.

It recommends that researchers undertake longitudinal studies to quantify the "early and intermediate outcomes of a Head Start experience'' as well as the effects of family participation in the program.

Other directions that should be undertaken include examinations of "quality ingredients" and "innovative program strategies" undertaken by existing programs as well as studies of "special subpopulations" of students.

Vol. 10, Issue 12

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