On a Monday morning last month, a crowd packed into the Brookings Institution auditorium in Washington, D.C., for a little-publicized event on early education reform. At the center of the event was Steve Barnett, a professor of education economics at Rutgers University and co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, who was there to raise questions on whether Head Start is an effective early childhood program, and how we might improve it.
The audience was filled with questions. Head Start, the nation’s largest federally funded preschool program for young children, could undergo major changes when Health and Human Services issues final rules for its Designated Renewal System, known broadly as re-competition, at the end of this year. Current plans for re-competition include rating Head Start providers for the first time and forcing the bottom 25 percent of providers to compete against new applicants for funding. Last January’s release of the long-awaited Head Start Impact Study also stirred controversy when results showed that gains made by Head Start children during preschool do not persist into first grade, leaving many who are already skeptical of the program even more so.
Barnett presented evidence from an article he wrote for the August 17th issue of Science that poses two questions: Is it possible for a large-scale public preschool program such as Head Start to replicate the success of small-scale research programs, like the famous Perry Preschool project? And if so, how?
Both questions aim at the heart of the debate that surrounds Head Start. If Head Start cannot replicate the benefits of other early childhood programs that have been shown to produce lasting cognitive gains among children from low-income families, then the program isn’t succeeding in its mission. But if Head Start could be reformed to help children achieve lasting cognitive and social benefits, then re-competition could be an opportunity to get Head Start on track to being a much more effective program.
Barnett conducted a meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of preschool. His analysis included well-publicized but short-lived programs like the Perry Preschool project as well as current state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, such as the Abbott preschools in New Jersey, Oklahoma’s state-funded universal pre-k program and the Child-Parent Centers in Chicago, which started with federal Title I money and originally included a PreK-3rd approach for sustaining gains in elementary school. Barnett found that, though studies of these programs show lasting gains among children from low-income families, the gains made by Head Start students are smaller and short-lived.
Barnett did not conclude, however, that this means Head Start should close its doors: In addition to fully supporting the current plans for re-competition, he hopes that Early Head Start will be included in the reforms as well, and that Head Start will resist the temptation to regulate its providers more tightly in the wake of the negative findings from January’s Impact Study. Less regulation, more experimental research (especially for Head Start’s youngest participant), more research, richer expenses, and a focus on testing and improving parenting education could all help boost Head Start results and strengthen the program for the future. If Head Start is faced with limited resources and must opt to either increase the quality its programs or expand the number of children it serves, Barnett believes that a boost in program quality must come first.
“I think Head Start and Early Head Start have philosophical models that are not the most effective,” Barnett said. “What I don’t see are consideration of that and a willingness to take off a lot of the constraints.”
Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start, was at the event to respond to Barnett along with a panel of four others. Though the panelists were overwhelmingly in favor of re-competition, many reminded Barnett and the audience that Head Start is a large, diverse program that serves the neediest of children and can’t easily be compared to the top-quality state-funded programs that Steve Barnett used for comparison in his study.
Another concern, voiced early in the debate by panelist Jens Ludwig, a professor of social-services administration, law and public policy at the University of Chicago, is that studies such as Barnett’s have been used by some critics to argue that Head Start should be closed instead of improved. “There has been a lot of what I think of as overheated rhetoric about the Head Start program,“ Ludwig said, with some opinion columnists claiming that “nothing good has come of Head Start” and that it doesn’t deserve funding. None of the panelists agreed with such an assessment.
Ludwig also raised a provocative point about the argument, raised by us here at Early Ed Watch among others, that the “fade out” of Head Start’s effectiveness may be a result of Head Start children being more likely to attend ineffective elementary schools than non-Head Start children. Ludwig said he questioned that hypothesis because he has conducted smaller studies of Head Start children who went to very poor elementary schools but still appeared to reap benefits from their Head Start experience in the long-term. He added that one possibility for apparent fade-out in the larger Impact Study is that public school teachers may be directing much of their attention to struggling students who have received no Head Start or preschool experience, thereby lifting those children’s scores on tests of alphabet knowledge and other cognitive skills to a similar level as the children who had attended Head Start.
Panelists also talked about how the research on Head Start can be contradictory: studies have shown benefits among Head Start participants in the past, and other research has concluded that the ostensible “fade out,” or loss of benefits among Head Start children by first grade, might be outlived by social and emotional skills that help Head Start children succeed as adults.
Though Barnett contested that these studies might not be as conclusive as many believe, he did recognize that social and emotional effects of Head Start are a crucial element of the program, which begs another question: how might future assessments accurately measure social-emotional gains made by preschoolers? The current re-competition plans would evaluate Head Start using the Classroom Assessment and Scoring System, which is research-validated and widely accepted as an accurate assessment for preschool classrooms, to measure Head Start programs. But the CLASS and other tools like it don’t directly measure how well children are developing socially and emotionally.
In the end, the panelists did agree that early education can be a wise public investment and that Head Start could benefit from incorporating some of the lessons learned from the growing body of early childhood research that did not exist when the program was founded in the 1960’s. If re-competition becomes a starting point for Head Start reform, big changes are ahead for the program in the coming years.
For more, see C-SPAN’s video of the event, as well as commentary by Barnett on Preschool Matters, NIEER’s blog.