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Head Start Marks Its 50th Anniversary With Looming Questions Over Its Impact

headstaBy Marie Davis

Head Start is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, and supporters and detractors are asking themselves, “Is it succeeding or is it falling short?”

Despite the advances of the last 50 years, the socioeconomic gap between Black and white Americans continues to rise. In fact, the Pew Research Center reported in December that the median wealth of whites is 13 times the median wealth of Blacks. This disparity in wealth is paralleled in academics.  Recent studies have shown that the achievement gap between poor and affluent students is widening.  According to the Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA), children born in 2001 versus those born 25 years earlier are experiencing a 30-40 percent larger gap in academic achievement. Head Start has historically been at the forefront of this burgeoning problem.

President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the Head Start initiative in the summer of 1965 as part of his War on Poverty. The goal was to create a program that would equip the nation’s poorest children with the tools necessary to succeed in school and later life. Two crucial elements made the program different from others that preceded it: the depth of parent involvement required and the breadth of comprehensive services offered to the child (including academic, health and social).  Five decades later, these two elements remain at the cornerstone of Head Start. The program has since serviced over 31 million children and their families. So does longevity signify success?

A study conducted by Harvard University in 2011 showed that students who had attended Head Start were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. In addition, a 2000 followup to the Head Start Planned Variation Study conducted from 1969-72 also found that girls who attended Head Start were more likely to graduate high school and earn a GED as compared to a non-Head Start control group (95 percent vs. 81 percent). This group was also less likely to have been arrested by age 22 (5 percent vs. 15 percent).

Unfortunately Head Start’s successes have also shed light on HeadStart_3some of its weaknesses. Westat, a research group based in Rockville, Maryland, conducted a congressionally mandated study in 2010 and 2012 and found that Head Start students in first grade demonstrated significant learning gains over their non-Head Start peers; particularly in the areas of spelling, vocabulary and word recognition. However, the study found that these learning gains were not sustained by the end of third grade. In fact, former Head Start students leaving third grade showed no significant difference in performance than their non-Head Start counterparts. It is this failure to maintain achievement gains that has prompted some of the recent changes taking place in the program.

Prior to 2011, Head Start providers automatically received funding renewals, barring there were no safety or financial concerns. This is no longer the case. Grants are not automatically renewed and funding now follows a five-year cycle. At the end of the term, centers must reapply. The goal is to weed out the low-performing schools that are believed to be responsible for the poor academic performance of students later on. According to President Barack Obama, “Under the old rules governing Head Start, there just wasn’t enough accountability.” Forcing all Head Start centers to reapply for funding based on performance forces accountability.

Many believe that the solution to Head Start’s problem lies elsewhere.  Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a former George W. Bush aide and current fellow at the Brookings Institute, proposes that parents receive vouchers to send their children to the preschool of their choice.  While Whitehurst believes that Head Start may have been the best option for parents at its inception, he feels, “the question is whether it’s the best now for children of low-income parents.”

Edward F. Ziegler, a professor emeritus at Yale University and member of the original committee that created the framework for Head Start, proposes a different solution.  He believes that Head Start should be open to higher-income children who would pay tuition on a sliding scale. According to him, poor children learn more when they are integrated with higher-income children. In fact, he proposed this during the initial planning stages of Head Start and holds firm to it stating, “That’s the big mistake in Head Start. That’ll be there forever if we don’t change it.”

Despite the ambiguousness of Head Start’s effectiveness in the long term, it remains the best option available to low-income parents in the short term. It has a proven track record of preparing children to meet the challenges of the public school classroom. Evidence of this is found in the 2010 Head Start Impact Study. According to the research, Head Start students demonstrate better skills in six areas related to language and literacy development. When one considers the increased expectations of students entering grade school and the widening achievement gap between various socioeconomic classes, it becomes imperative that programs such as Head Start not only succeed but continue to exceed another 50 years!

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