Ideas & Findings

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The federal Head Start program pays off for white children, but, for African-American children, the program doesn't provide much of a return on its investment.

That's the controversial conclusion reached by two researchers from the rand Institute, a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank. Economists Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas used data from national longitudinal surveys of mothers and children to analyze the federal anti-poverty program's cost-effectiveness.

Writing in the current American Economic Review, the researchers conclude that white children who participated in Head Start did significantly better on academic tests than siblings who had either stayed at home or gone to different preschools. What's more, the gains they made seemed to last. In elementary school, those children were less likely than their brothers and sisters to repeat a grade.

In comparison, the large test-score gains that African-American children first made in Head Start faded out with time. The black children were just as likely as their nonparticipating siblings to be held back in school.

Children of both races, on the other hand, did get better access to health care. But the authors say those benefits did not lead to improvements in longer-term health indicators, such as children's height.

Considering that the health services the program provides cost only $468 a child, the researchers reasoned, the $3,500-per-childcost for Head Start does not pay off for African-American children.

Their findings have raised the hackles of Head Start proponents who point out that other studies have shown just the opposite: that black children gained more from Head Start than white children.

Gregg Powell, the research director for the National Head Start Association, also says the rand study fails to account for what happens to families after a child has gone through Head Start. As a result of what they learned through the program, parents may do a better job with younger offspring.

"They're assuming that older siblings and younger siblings grew up in the same family," he says.

Both the researchers and critics agree, however, that black children may reap fewer lasting benefits from Head Start because they come disproportionately from poorer neighborhoods with troubled schools.

If those barriers were removed, the researchers write, "the program could probably be judged an incontrovertible success."

The image of poor, struggling students working their way through high school or college is a popular one among Americans. But a study released last month suggests that working teenagers are far from poor.

James Wright and Rhoda Carr of Tulane University analyzed data on thousands of working teenagers who took part in the National Longitudinal Survey of American Youth, a federally funded study that has tracked students since 1979. Their conclusion: Teenagers who worked while in school were mostly white males from well-educated, two-parent, middle-class families who earned better-than-average grades.

"I think it's a question of availability of jobs and what kinds of workers employers who hire teenage workers look for," says Wright, a professor of sociology.

Twelve years later, the data show, the former working students were still doing better. Students who had worked 40 or more weeks in high school, for example, earned an average of $1,585 more a year in 1991 than those who did not.

On the downside, however, those students were also slightly less likely to complete college than their nonworking counterparts. But, as the authors of the study point out, the reduced time in school had apparently not hurt their earning power.

A recent study points to a simple--but effective--way teachers can cut down on the gender stereotyping that goes on in their classrooms: Avoid dividing the class into teams of boys and girls.

In a report published in the August issue of Child Development, Rebecca S. Bigler describes an experiment involving 66 elementary school children attending a summer-school program. In one group of classrooms, teachers frequently grouped children by gender for classroom tasks. One teacher, for example, gave boys and girls separate bulletin boards and segregated classroom seating by sex.

In another group of classrooms, students were randomly classified as either "blues" or "reds" for activities. Students were grouped in no special way in the third group of classrooms.

After four weeks, Bigler writes, the students in the classrooms that highlighted gender differences were more likely than before the experiment to rate certain occupations as appropriate to "only men" or "only women." Dividing children into groups of "blues" and "reds," on the other hand, did not influence their gender biases either way.

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 15, Issue 06

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