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Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment.

Head Start, launched in 1965 to help disadvantaged 4- and 5-year-olds succeed in school and beyond, is the Teflon social program. Although many social welfare schemes are regularly criticized, Head Start is almost universally regarded as successful. Democrats and Republicans in Washington and scholars throughout the country knock each other down getting to the microphone to issue accolades. So what if few good evaluations of the program have been done, and most of them are negative. Who cares if the cost/benefit figures thrown about in Congress and the media are fabrications! Such criticisms are like rain in the ocean.

Zigler and Muenchow's book is an interesting anecdotal history of Head Start, particularly of the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Zigler, now a Yale University psychology professor, headed the program. Overall, however, the book continues the traditional high praise and soft analysis of Head Start. Although the authors put a few scratches on Head Start's Teflon--they acknowledge that the quality of programs around the country has been highly uneven--the book reinforces the thinking that Head Start programs beget immediate and lasting improvements in the lives of disadvantaged children and that the program is thus "America's most successful educational experiment."

Head Start's original proponents sought to provide a range of services for poor children and their families, from health and dental care to community development. The drive to use Head Start as a means of empowering the disadvantaged continues to this day. Yet there is no question that in the eyes of most Americans and most members of Congress the central intent of Head Start has always been to get poor children ready for school--to "put them on an even footing with their classmates," in President Lyndon Johnson's words.

Most professionals believed that helping children succeed in school meant, at least in part, making them smarter--helping them learn letters, numbers, colors, and other basic concepts and skills that children from middle-class families would already have mastered. We know now that this thinking was misguided. There are many studies demonstrating that even programs that boosted IQ test scores by 10 or more points had transitory impacts on later IQ scores and on school achievement. Head Start children, despite an initial improvement of about 5 IQ points, failed to attain higher IQ scores or display greater academic achievement than similar non-Head-Start kids as early as the end of first grade.

Still, despite the ephemeral nature of effects on achievement scores, good studies exist that link quality preschool education to fewer grade retentions and less placement in special education programs, effects that are noticeable 10 or more years after the end of preschool. One or two studies even suggest that quality preschool may have played a role in improving graduation rates and reducing delinquency and teen pregnancy. These are exactly the type of results for which Congress and the American public thought they were paying.

Zigler and Muenchow claim that there is "ample evidence" that Head Start programs have also produced these very agreeable research results. Yet the evidence that they cite--research by the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies at Cornell University and reviews of Head Start programs in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Maryland--is fundamentally flawed.

As the authors acknowledge, the Cornell research is somewhat misleading because none of the programs that produced long-term effects were Head Start programs. The Philadelphia study indicates that Head Start had some beneficial effects on school attendance and perhaps grade retention, but these results were found in some groups and not in others, and some effects were not statistically evaluated. In addition, most of the children were in a special elementary school program as well as in Head Start. The Montgomery County study had an attrition rate of nearly 90 percent, thereby disqualifying it from scientific discussion.

Thus, given the evidence at hand, Zigler and Muenchow are not entitled to further the myth that Head Start produces a long-term boost in school performance or in any other aspect of poor children's lives. The most that they can conclude is that some preschool programs have produced long-term impacts, indicating that relatively permanent gains may be possible. Why, though, has the Head Start record been so disappointing? Zigler and Muenchow acknowledge only that "too many Head Start centers are not of high quality" and thus have failed to produce lasting benefits. They then quickly skip to the business of providing prescriptions for change.

Can we do better?

Their major recommendation is to increase Head Start spending from the current $3,200 per child to $5,400. Most of this money would be used to boost salaries and benefits in order to attract and retain better teachers. Some money would be used to provide more services to families with special problems, to strengthen health services, and to increase federal monitoring and technical assistance.

These are reasonable ideas. Unfortunately, the authors present little evidence to indicate that such changes would in fact improve Head Start quality or outcomes. Although the research is not definitive, a case can be made that more experienced and skilled preschool teachers make a difference in the development of children.

A case also can be made that better health care makes a difference. But these recommendations are supported more by assertion than analysis. All in all, a reader is left wondering whether the recommendations will produce any beneficial effects.

Surprisingly, the authors next make even broader recommendations for change. In addition to coordinating Head Start with welfare reform and the $6.7-billion Chapter 1 program for low achievers in public schools, Zigler and Muenchow would expand Head Start to provide comprehensive family services, to enroll children from birth to age three, and to include families with incomes of up to 133 percent of the poverty level rather than the current 100 percent.

In making such far-reaching recommendations, the authors fail to carefully assess some important questions and issues. For example, rather than estimate the number of children up to age three who would qualify for an expanded Head Start program and how much it would cost to serve them, they simply suggest that local programs be given the option of including younger children. Is there evidence that more than one year of Head Start is justified? How much more would it cost to care for infants than for older children? What guidelines should be followed if resource limitations permit only some poor infants to be admitted? Should some infants have a higher priority than the currently eligible three- and four-year-olds? And most important, given the sub-par quality of some current Head Start programs, might not the addition of infants dilute the entire program?

Readers are left in the dark on all these questions.

Faced with the prospect of millions of seemingly ineducable children moving through the nation's schools, policymakers are understandably eager to latch onto anything that offers hope of breaking the cycle of failure. But wishing will not make it so, and pumping more money into Head Start without first determining why it is not succeeding is a recipe for disillusionment. Better to face the facts now so that we can begin figuring out what can make a difference.

Ron Haskins is welfare counsel of the House Ways and Means Committee.
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Author:Haskins, Ron
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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