Early Childhood Opinion

Literacy, Schools, and Head Start

By Arthur J. Reynolds — October 10, 2001 5 min read
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Arthur J. Reynolds directs the Chicago Longitudinal Study and is a professor of social work, educational psychology, and human development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Major changes in federal early-childhood programs are on the horizon. President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan, Head Start’s possible move to the U.S. Department of Education, and recent announcements by the U.S. secretaries of education and of health and human services of a preschool task force and a $50 million research initiative to promote literacy signal that school readiness is a top national priority. Promising better interagency coordination, Secretary of Education Rod Paige pledged at a White House summit on early learning this past summer that, together, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services would ensure that Head Start and other preschool programs “are doing the right things and getting results.”

These increased commitments to early literacy and better coordination are encouraging. They should draw our attention, in fact, to an existing federal early-childhood program that has put such principles into action—more effectively and for a longer period of time than almost any other—and is well worth emulating. The Chicago Child-Parent Centers have done from the beginning what policymakers want preschool programs to do today: provide a high-quality education emphasizing literacy within a framework of services that is comprehensive and coordinated with schools.

Financed by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Chicago centers opened in 1967 in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The first four child-parent centers were named for Nathaniel Cole, Lorraine Hansberry, Charles Dickens, and Milton Olive. Modeled after Head Start, they emphasized comprehensive family services. The major goal was to enhance children’s literacy, beginning at age 3, with parents as partners. As Lorraine Sullivan, the superintendent for area schools, noted at the time, the centers provided a “highly structured, instruction-oriented educational program for preschool children, with maximum emphasis on language and reading skills.”

This innovative program clearly fulfilled one of the original goals of the Title I act: "[to] employ imaginative thinking and new approaches to meet the educational needs of poor children.”

Many evaluations of this Chicago public school program have demonstrated large improvements in children’s school success. In the most rigorous of these studies, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Education Department, my colleagues and I reported recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the effects of participation in the centers are long-lasting.

By age 20, preschool graduates had a 29 percent higher rate of school completion, a 33 percent lower rate of juvenile arrest, and 40 percent lower rates of special education placement and grade retention than a comparison group of children who did not participate in the program. Participants’ rates of remedial education and arrest were at or below national norms. Rates of juvenile arrest were close to the national average. Program services that continued into the early school grades further reduced rates of remedial education and increased achievement-test scores.

A recent cost-benefit analysis demonstrated high payoffs. At a per-child cost of $6,730 for 18 months of part-day services, the program’s age-21 benefits per child totaled $47,759 in increased economic well-being and reduced expenditures for remediation and treatment. This translates into a societal return of $7 for every dollar invested in this Title I preschool.

These large effects are no surprise. They were initiated in kindergarten. We found that these high-risk preschoolers scored at the national average in literacy skills at the beginning of kindergarten and at the 66th percentile at the end of kindergarten, far ahead of the comparison group. Parental involvement also was substantially higher for preschool participants.

We have identified several key ingredients of program effectiveness:

  • A coordinated system integrates preschool and kindergarten with continuing school-age services in neighborhood schools. Thus, children can participate for up to six years. This structure can reduce student mobility.
  • Language and number skills are emphasized through a structured but diverse set of learning activities in and outside the classroom.
  • Comprehensive services are provided to support child and family well-being, including a wide range of intensive parent activities in the centers.
  • Staff members are well-trained and well-compensated. Since it is a public school program, all teachers have bachelor’s degrees, hold early-childhood certificates, and earn competitive salaries.

These features promote a stable workforce.

These are the “active” ingredients of high-quality early education, and they should be major elements of new and existing programs.

How else can educators, policymakers, and the public achieve better results from investments in early-childhood programs? For one, districts would be wise to increase the amount of Title I funds for preschools like Chicago’s. In 2000, only 5 percent of federal Title I dollars went to preschool programs.

Another option is to increase the number of Head Start programs run through public schools. Only about one-third of Head Start grantees are schools. Increased coordination of services is an expressed goal of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson and Secretary Paige.

Moreover, full-day programs should be widely available beginning at age 3 and continue to kindergarten. As program length increases, so does children’s school performance. Barely one- half of all eligible children enroll in preschool programs, and most of these are for only part of the day.

The Chicago Child-Parent Centers are not perfect, but they have demonstrated for 35 years that the goal of preschool literacy can be achieved.

Finally, greater research investments are needed to evaluate programs. The research and evaluation budgets of Head Start and Title I are each less than one-third of 1 percent of program expenditures. More evaluation research is required to know what works and what works better.

The Chicago Child-Parent Centers are not perfect, but they have demonstrated for 35 years that the goal of preschool literacy can be achieved within a framework of comprehensive services organized by schools. The main lesson is that public schools are well-suited to take the leadership role in organizing a system of early education in which all children can benefit.

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