Head Start Works, But It Could Be Better, Research Shows

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Head Start is effectively preparing young children for kindergarten, a federally funded study of the program concludes. But there also are areas where improvement is needed in the 34-year-old preschool program for low-income children, the research shows.

The first findings of the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey, or FACES, show that, on average, the quality of Head Start classrooms is good.

On the widely used Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, none of the Head Start classrooms scored below "minimum quality," unlike classrooms in other types of programs, such as child-care centers and preschools.

"Attempts by the Head Start program to monitor and keep quality high do seem to be working," Nicholas Zill, the director of child and family studies at Westat, a Rockville, Md., research organization, said earlier this month when he presented the study here at the four-day biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Nicholas Zill

The new research comes shortly before a meeting this week of a government panel, created by last year's congressional reauthorization of Head Start, that will decide how to measure quality in the program.

That panel, the Secretary's Advisory Commission on Head Start Research and Evaluation, will meet over the next several months and is required to make recommendations by the end of September.

'Ready To Learn'

Westat is one of four research groups conducting the FACES study for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start. The survey began in fall 1997 and is following 3,200 children and families in 40 Head Start programs throughout the country.

During field tests, the research team found that after a year in Head Start, children could give their full names and ages, identify 10 colors, count four objects, and solve simple addition and subtraction problems. They could also show the front cover of a storybook and open it to start reading.

The children also had developed social skills, such as helping to put materials away, following a teacher's directions, and waiting their turn in games.

What they could not yet do included identifying most letters of the alphabet, writing letters of the alphabet on request, and showing that they know reading is done from left to right and top to bottom.

The researchers also looked at Head Start "graduates" after a year in kindergarten and found that they had made significant progress.

Most of the children could recognize most letters of the alphabet, write their first names, and identify 20 more items on a picture vocabulary test than they could a year earlier. They also demonstrated more familiarity with books and were able to recite basic facts about themselves.

Results of the field tests, the report says, "suggest that children leaving Head Start are indeed 'ready to learn' because they have, in fact, learned a great deal by the end of kindergarten. The signs are that most Head Start graduates at the end of kindergarten are well on their way to becoming readers in 1st or 2nd grade."

Weaknesses Found

There are areas, though, where Head Start could be strengthened, the researchers said.

For example, while children in the program developed social skills, those who had problem behaviors, such as being aggressive, disruptive, or withdrawn, continued to exhibit those behaviors.

And even though children learned words, they did not make much progress in letter recognition or book knowledge.

"A probable reason why Head Start children are not learning early-reading skills like letter recognition and print awareness is that many Head Start teachers are not teaching them," the report says.

The findings are likely to be of interest to members of Congress, who during last year's reauthorization hearings emphasized that Head Start should be an educational program and included in the law specific skills that children should achieve.

Teachers, Mr. Zill concludes, may avoid emphasizing certain skills because they believe they're not "developmentally appropriate"--a term used to describe teaching practices that allow children to advance at their own pace.

Throughout the field of early-childhood education, the term--coined by the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children--has often been interpreted to mean that programs shouldn't provide any academic instruction. However, the NAEYC, which accredits early-childhood programs, has attempted to clarify the term in recent years. In a 1998 position statement on learning to read and write, jointly written by the NAEYC and the International Reading Association, developmentally appropriate was defined as "challenging but achievable."

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the NAEYC, said the organization has been trying to stress the importance of letter recognition but also to emphasize that it should be "done in a way that is meaningful to children."

Research Questions

One thing the FACES study does not do is compare the performance of Head Start children with that of a similar group of children who did not attend Head Start.

This lack of comparison has been an issue for the U.S. General Accounting Office. The congressional watchdog agency has argued that the Clinton administration's research agenda on Head Start, and the FACES study specifically, doesn't provide a clear picture of whether Head Start is making a positive difference for children.

The study did, however, compare the scores of Head Start children against national norms. Children who scored in the highest quarter were close to the norms, it found, but those in the lowest quarter scored far below the norms.

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Page 8

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as Head Start Works, But It Could Be Better, Research Shows
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