Early Childhood Opinion

Head Start: Can’t We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too?

By Deborah Stipek — May 05, 2004 8 min read
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Deborah Stipek is the dean of the school of education at Stanford University.

The Head Start reauthorization currently under way in Congress is raising some important questions about the purposes and nature of early-childhood-education programs. Among a number of controversial changes is a new focus on academics. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would require new educational performance standards to be developed, based on recommendations from a National Academy of Sciences panel. The House bill includes a list of general areas of child development, and the Senate bill includes a long list of specific skills to be considered by the nas panel. Head Start programs would then be held accountable for making progress toward meeting these goals, and their funding would be withdrawn after some period of time if they failed.

The proposed focus on academics has been opposed by many early-childhood- education experts and the Head Start constituency. Opponents are concerned that attention to academic skills will dilute efforts to promote positive social and emotional development, and that the comprehensive health services that Head Start currently provides will be abandoned.

These concerns are understandable, but there is no reason why attention to young children’s intellectual skills needs to come at the cost of health care and opportunities to develop socially and emotionally. Certainly middle-class parents don’t have to make a choice between reading to their children and taking them to the dentist. A reduction in health services or attention to social-emotional development would also conflict with the Bush administration’s goal of ensuring that children enter school ready to succeed, since health and social skills are strong predictors of children’s academic performance in school.

There is good reason for increasing attention to young children’s academic skills. Studies show children from low-income families entering kindergarten to be on average a year to a year and a half behind middle-class children in their language and many other cognitive skills. This is a gigantic gap when you consider that we are talking about 5- to 6-year-olds. Recent analyses of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative sample of 19,000 children, revealed that in kindergarten, children with one risk factor (for example, having a mother with less than a high school education, or living in a family that received food stamps or cash welfare payments) were twice as likely as children with no risk factors to have reading scores that fell in the lowest 25 percent of the overall skill distribution.

The relatively poor cognitive skills of low-income children at school entry cannot be ignored, in part because children’s entry skills predict their long-term achievement. Researcher Meredith Phillips of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues estimate in their 1998 study that about half of the total black-white math and reading gap at the end of high school can be attributed to differences that exist at the beginning of elementary school. Failing to give children who come from economically disadvantaged homes a better chance of succeeding in school is irresponsible. The question is not whether, but how.

Also underlying opposition to an increased emphasis on academic skills in Head Start is a concern that the teaching strategies that will be implemented will not be appropriate for young children and could do more harm than good. I share this fear for several reasons.

Failing to give children who come from economically disadvantaged homes a better chance of succeeding in school is irresponsible.

First, most Head Start teachers are poorly paid and have very limited training. The reauthorization bills include provisions requiring more highly educated teachers. But increases in funding are not likely to come close to paying for the increased educational requirements. Teaching reading, math, and science, even if it is to 4-year-olds, requires considerable skill. Teachers who are less educated typically resort to scripted, didactic teaching methods that undermine motivation and focus on only a few of the many important skills and understandings children need to become proficient in reading and mathematics.

Second, both reauthorization bills stipulate that all curricula and materials be scientifically based. Who could disagree with such a requirement? But this provision could easily turn out to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing. If experience with the administration’s Reading First initiative is prognostic, this requirement would be used to force the implementation of direct instruction.

Direct instruction, to be sure, has its place, even in preschools. But the academic skills listed in the bills and likely to be endorsed and expanded by the National Academy of Sciences panel cannot all be taught effectively through direct instruction. Middle-class children do not achieve their academic advantage by repeatedly writing the letters of the alphabet and counting to 10. Moreover, many studies have shown that highly didactic instructional approaches can undermine young children’s motivation to learn. Surely we want children to desire to read as much as we want them to be able to identify the letters of the alphabet.

The good news is that children can be taught basic academic skills in the context of playful activities that exploit rather than destroy their natural desire to learn. The National Research Council report “Starting Out Right” describes many activities that are based on research on effective strategies for teaching reading. Vocabulary can be taught by labeling games and by reinforcing the meaning of new words in conversations that take place in the context of everyday activities. Oral language and comprehension skills develop through conversations and storytelling. Print awareness is promoted by reading to children and pointing out features of books. Phonemic awareness can be taught through songs, rhyming games, and identifying and generating words that contain particular sounds. Writing skills can be encouraged and developed in the context of pretend play, such as running a restaurant or post office.

Although mathematics in early-childhood education has received less attention than literacy, we know that basic number concepts are developed best through active manipulation of objects, not by rote counting or worksheets. Mathematics, like literacy, can be learned in the context of playful activities. A pretend store or restaurant (two poker chips for milk, three for a cookie) can be set up; the number of children present or absent on a given day can be counted; questions about relative quantities (less and more, bigger and smaller) can be embedded in many activities and conversations (for example, by asking “who has more juice left in her glass?”). Science activities can give children practice in categorizing and sorting.

Good teachers of young children embed teaching into playful activities and create learning opportunities throughout the children’s day.

Good teachers of young children embed teaching into playful activities and create learning opportunities throughout the children’s day. To be effective, they need to know each child’s current skill level well, so that the opportunities they provide build on children’s current understanding. This kind of teaching requires considerable skill, and it cannot be delivered through a one-size-fits-all instructional program. If Head Start teachers are required to increase substantially their attention to children’s academic- skill development, they need to be trained well, not to be handed scripts.

A third reason to be wary of the new focus on academic skills is that the accountability stick in the legislation (make progress toward your goals or lose funding) is going to give the instrument used to assess children’s academic skills considerable influence over the curriculum and instructional practices. If the assessment requires children to count to 10, I can guarantee that children will spend a great deal of time counting to 10, and not much time learning what “10" means. If it assesses letter identification, letter identification will be at the heart of the literacy curriculum, and all of the other important skills and knowledge that prepare children to be successful readers will be given short shrift. We have learned this lesson from the No Child Left Behind Act, and we will see the test driving the curriculum even more in a context in which teachers have little to no training, few employment alternatives, and risk losing their jobs if their children do not perform well.

If the National Reporting System, administered last year to 432,000 Head Start children, is any indication of what is to come, we have reason to be very concerned. The test assesses recognition and knowledge completely decontextualized from meaningful activities.

The kind of instruction such a test is likely to promote is horrifying—just like the item in the test that asks children to select from four pictures which one expresses this emotion. I guarantee that if this test is used to determine the fate of Head Start programs, every Head Start child will know which picture to select when asked about the emotion “horrified.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that they will have the slightest idea what it means to feel horrified.

We must not implement test-driven teaching approaches that fail to teach children important cognitive skills.

I find myself in what psychologists refer to as an approach-avoidance conflict. Yes, we desperately need to address the huge achievement gap that exists before children begin school. Yes, we must help children from economically disadvantaged homes develop the academic skills they need to succeed in school.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to expect the administration’s good intentions to lead to bad outcomes for children. My fervent hope is that we do not trade off attention to the social, emotional, and physical health of children for attention to cognitive skills. And we must not implement teaching approaches that fail to teach children important cognitive skills while they dampen children’s enthusiasm for learning.

I encourage the early-childhood-education community to work with the Bush administration to make sure that we apply what we know about effective instruction and meaningful assessment to make decisions about how we help economically disadvantaged children develop the intellectual skills they need to succeed in school.

If we can achieve this, we can have our cake and eat it too.

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