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Why Head Start Matters

August 12, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

As the lifelong impacts of high-quality early childhood education have become better known, the early years of a child’s life have become a matter of education policy. It’s also important to remember the importance of publicly supported child care and early childhood education as a way of supporting working families.

Education Week has sketched out the history of the Head Start program, starting in 1965 with its rapid development and expansion as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Even a conservative critic of the modern program who advocates a voucher approach to early childhood admitted in the article that, for many children and families, Head Start was the best option available.

Those who are most skeptical of the program point to the infamous “fade out” effect. Head Start does provide an academic boost to participating children as they go into kindergarten, but their advantage fades over time, fading away by third grade.

This is sometimes held up as an example of the program’s failure, although others argue that strong early childhood education—whether provided by Head Start or another program—is more like a vaccine. The more children who enter kindergarten well-prepared, the less time and energy teachers have to devote to helping kids who are behind catch up to the kids with, well, the head start. If everyone came into kindergarten with a Head Start style boost (as many middle and upper middle class children do, thanks to their families’ ability to pay for other early childhood education), kindergarten teachers could lead their entire classes to higher levels as a group.

Another advantage of Head Start is its focus on families. Other high-quality early childhood programs share this trait, and Head Start has been shown to have a positive effect on families’ civic engagement and ability to navigate the social service system. Especially with many other parts of that system being less than user-friendly (and growing more hostile as conservatives find new ways to imply that people working hard just to get by are lazy drug users), the demonstration that a public program can help families be more civically active and personally empowered should be celebrated and replicated.

This is not to say that the program is perfect, and the Education Week article devotes significant time to the variations in quality between Head Start providers. Identifying the best ways to address those concerns is not clear cut. There’s the conservative arguing for a voucher system. The executive director of NIEER (the National Institute of Early Education Research) favors a decrease in compliance-based regulations that he says stifle many programs. A former manager of Head Start thinks that the program should open up to families at all income levels, with sliding fees for higher income families. This would encourage children from across the socioeconomic spectrum to mix, which he says is good for children from families trying to make ends meet.

That last recommendation gets to another reason why Head Start and other public programs for young children are so important. According to the Pew Research Center, the costs of child care rose more than 70 percent in real dollars between 1985 and 2011. People working to provide for their family for less than $1,500 a month spend an average of two out of every five dollars on child care. For young children, Minnesota is one of the most expensive states for child care, averaging nearly $14,000 per year for infants (third highest in the country) and well over $10,000 for four-year-olds (fourth highest) in 2012.

Pew speculated that the costs of child care may well be driving and keeping people out of the workforce, especially when they would have to spend more on child care than they’d get paid at a job. In this context, public programs that reduce the cost of child care are good for people who want to work.

Head Start, of course, is much more than child care. It is full-on early childhood education. The educators who work with children and families are not simply supervising kids to make sure they have a safe place to be. They are using curriculum and instruction to give students that well-documented boost as they go into kindergarten.

As with most areas of education, it’s important for Head Start to be well-funded and to invite democratic participation from families and educators. The state and local early childhood and family education programs the serve a similar function deserve the same. Public understanding of the significance of high-quality opportunities for very young children has been growing clearer, and public programs like Head Start have a critical role to play in ensuring we have a robust system to guarantee those opportunities.

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  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    August 18, 2014 at 8:54 am

    The “fade out” discussion point is bogus.  Several aspects of Head Start set limits on the effectiveness of the programming as follows:
    1.  Head Start until quite recently has been a half-day social and nutritional program focussing on language and social skills. The intent of the program was sociological improvement for children and parents.
    2.  Family assistance through employment of some mothers in the HS program has both positive and negative effects on young children (poor language model, inconsistent in nurturing interactions, etc).
    3.  HS programming until recently had no school readiness/pre-academic content and no expected academic effect.
    4. Every teacher in each following grade must build on the brain development provided by the preceding grade.
    5. Children from disadvantaged/poverty environments require two or more years of intense neuro-readiness and academic mastery in order to attain the achievement levels of advantaged peers. 
    6. Education has until recently operated in a sociological context, and the neuro-developmental focus is a recent shift.  Most educators operate in a social context; the new context is neuro-development with attention to nutrition, consistent nurturing interaction, brain cell activation and reactivation with highly stimulating input and attention to individual needs.  The training of teachers and aides today is shifting slowly to incorporate the new awareness and applications of what affects the brain both negatively (stress) and positively (movement, stimulation, interaction).

    Head Start has had and continues to have great possibilities for impressive effects on children, but the focus must be on training the staff and parents.  Because of the low pay the huge staff turnover has always been a major factor in undercutting the effectiveness of Head Start.  The hope now is that the staff can become more stable, resulting in consistency in effects.