Does Head Start really work? Um, yeah.

January 31st, 2011 | Economic Opportunity Institute

Head Start Logoby Wendy Young, originally posted in Examiner.com Marquette:

(This article is in rebuttal to the article “Parents, Taxpayers Deserve to Know if Preschool, Head Start Programs Work” that appeared in “The Foundry”, regarding the supposition that Head Start is not effective. When interpreting “research findings” we must always look at the information presented through a critical eye, not just present the facts that serve our platform. If you are interested, you can find the original article here.)

As a taxpayer, I think it’s prudent that we evaluate outcomes on any sort of programming supported by our tax dollars. Not only should outcome evaluations be well constructed, they should also be balanced and give information that paints a full picture, not just a segment of the picture.

As a child and family therapist, and independent Mental Health consultant to multiple Head Start and Early Head Start programs in the Midwest (Michigan and Wisconsin), I have a much different perspective on these programs, what they really do, and the overall impact they have on children and families.

Head Start is a far cry from “daycare”. I have been nothing short of impressed with the high quality administrators, teachers and staff that I have been privileged to know through the numerous Head Start programs to which I consult.

Head Start is a highly regulated program, with stringent guidelines, performance standards and outcome measures that must be demonstrated. Add to this the rigorous Federal Reviews that each Head Start must answer to and it is evident that this program has more than the center manager policing the goings-on in Head Start.

To get a glimpse at the lofty performance standards, read here.

The program is comprehensive. I have sat at meeting tables with some of the best and the brightest pediatricians, nutritionists, nurses, education specialists, financial specialists, dental health promoters and others, while planning upcoming trainings, strategies and approaches to improve the lives children and families.

Head Start is more than educational. It addresses numerous other dimensions that, together, promote and contribute to the optimal development of the child. It provides comprehensive education, health, mental health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.

I am intrigued by the Heritage report that was linked to from this article, which points out that it was proven that “Head Start children outperformed their peers in four out of the six cognitive constructs: pre-reading, pre-writing, vocabulary, and parent reports of students’ literacy skills” when initially tested. BRAVO. This tells us something good DID come from Head Start.

However, it goes on to say, “They report that the evaluation found that, overall, Head Start participants experienced zero lasting benefits compared to their non-Head Start peers by the end of first grade.” Now this is where it truly gets interesting.

What does this mean, really? Does it mean that Head Start has failed…or does it point to the more likely fact that our public schools are failing? Because that is what I glean from this information.

If Head Start children have a competitive edge at the beginning of their elementary school years, but lose this by the end of first grade, couldn’t that point to the fact that our public schools are doing nothing to keep the momentum going that was first set forth in Head Start? Could it be that the lack of attention to nutrition, health, mental health, dental care and most of all…family support…is gaping hole that develops after the public schools take off where Head Start left off?

And what would these kids look like had they not had the benefit of Head Start? How far behind their peers might they be?

I think those that would like to see Head Start dismantled don’t have a difficult time with funneling money towards early childhood education, per se. Rather, it may be that the problem lies in the fact that all of these funds are being channeled in the direction of disadvantaged, marginalized, and financially impoverished children and families.

This clearly is a much bigger issue than can be addressed in one post. I just hope I have done some small justice to a program which I see far supersedes ANYTHING I have seen in any other venue.

And…we haven’t even begun to address, nor try to measure the social-emotional benefits such as navigating peer relationships, resolving conflicts, self-esteem, belief in one’s self, or ability to manage difficult feelings and situations, which can be a MUCH stronger indicator of one’s success in life than how one performs on a math or reading test.

If any one program can meet these multiple needs of high-risk children and families, Head Start and similar such programs can.

If you really want the world to become a better, safer and “free” place, support the programs that support disadvantaged, marginalized, and financially impoverished children and families.

If you think these programs are just a handout, I highly recommend you attend a training on “Bridges Out of Poverty”. Until then, I will remain grateful and hopeful that those that make the decisions to fund the programs such as Head Start “get it”. They really, really “get it”.

To read more about whether or not Head Start works, see this.

Read the full article on Examiner.com Marquette »

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Posted in Early Learning, Education

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