Dilemma for Head Start

March 12, 1992

For years educators have known that Head Start programs provide significant help for poor children. Kids who attend Head Start do better when they enter school and are less likely to drop out. Yet recent studies also indicate that without strong follow-up -- such as intensive tutoring, smaller class sizes, social workers and parent liaisons -- the benefits of the program eventually fade.

These findings raise a dilemma for policy makers: Should scarce dollars be used to make one or two years of Head Start available to every eligible youngster? Or should the aim be to serve fewer students but offer follow-up programs for four or five years?

Two of the studies examined Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, where 55 percent of the children came from families on welfare. The centers enrolled children from age 3 through the third grade, limited class sizes to 20 and hired full-time nurses and social workers to help troubled families. Result: Children who spent at least four years at the centers not only did much better than children with no Head Start experience, but the longer the children stayed the better they did later.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University who studied 18,000 children in 36 schools around the country found a similar pattern and corroborated the importance of tutoring and family support programs that emphasize health, nutrition and parental involvement.

The results suggest extending the benefits of Head Start pays off handsomely. Yet only about $20 million is earmarked for such support programs. Meanwhile, the government spends $7 billion on Chapter 1 programs, which provide extra help to schools in poor neighborhoods. Reorganizing Chapter 1 as a program aimed at Head Start graduates could greatly increase its effectiveness. But it also might mean helping fewer children.

The dilemma, as one researcher put it, is "do you put all your money into a one- or two-year program and give it to everybody, or do you put your money into selective places for four to six years and really make a difference for those children?"

Having agreed that Head Start works, Congress and the White House now should agree on how the government can make it work with maximum effectiveness.

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