A huge pile of research shows that efforts to improve a child's academic potential and address social and learning problems are most effective when they begin early in life — well before school starts, and ideally, from birth. It's the reason President Barack Obama proposed providing access to free preschool in his 2013 State of the Union address. Questions surround the federal government's ability to provide effective early childhood education, though.
Over the last four decades, a compelling body of empirical evidence shows it is possible to improve a wide range of outcomes for vulnerable children well into adult years, and generate benefits to society far in excess of program costs, according to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child . However, the Harvard researchers note that this effect is dependent on the quality and implementation of the interventions used.
Results of a December 2012 federal study on the $8 billion federal Head Start program, are disappointing. Benefits of the program show up clearly as children who attend move into kindergarten, the study concluded, but those benefits fade away by about third grade. By that time, school performance for kids who attended Head Start is similar to performance of their peers who did not.
Opinions about the cause of "Head Start Fade" are divided. In an article published by Education Week, Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, said that Head Start does is core job — preparing disadvantaged children for kindergarten — well. For many disadvantaged children, the quality of the schools they attend after leaving Head Start continues to hinder their success, she said.
At conservativeblog.org, a posting by David Hogbern takes a darker view.
"What if there is nothing the government can do for low-income children to improve their educational performance?" Hogbern asks. He then cites research showing that the positive effect of parents reading to their children at home is one of the best indicators of future academic success, and studies showing that low-income parents are less likely to read to their children.
"We all want to cling to the belief that there is something that can be done for those children who did not receive the necessary development at home," Hogbern wrote. "Sadly, it’s a belief that isn’t supported by the evidence. And if we persist in it with programs like Head Start, then we are spending resources in a way that will do little good."
A fact sheet from the White House about the early childhood education proposals was posted online at the time of the State of the Union address. A close reading of the document indicates that the proposal calls for drastic changes to the Head Start program as it now exists, wrote Brookings Institution researcher Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst in a thorough discussion of the proposals. Whitehurst noted that the fact sheet describes a narrower program than the president's verbal remarks about free preschool for all indicated.
"The White House fact sheet makes it clear that the administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower-income families. Specifically, the administration’s plan is to share the costs with states that are willing to expand public preschool to reach all 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line and that expand their half-day kindergarten programs to full day for the same families," Whitehurst wrote. "The Obama administration’s preschool plan is consistent with the federal role in education and human services since the Lyndon Johnson administration: targeted assistance for services to the economically disadvantaged."
Whitehurst, a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, had cheers and jeers for the Obama proposals as described in the fact sheet. Positive aspects of the plan were determined to be:
Targeting: "The administration’s focus on providing financial support for expansion of pre-K access for 4-year-olds from lower-income families is consistent with the evidence on both where the need exists for enhancing children’s school readiness and on how to maximize bang for the buck," according to the Brookings Institution posting.
Curriculum: Evidence shows that children from low-income families are far behind advantaged peers at school entry, and that curriculum used in classrooms for low-income 4-year-olds has big impact on developing vocabulary, letter recognition and phonemic awareness, Whitehurst wrote. "Thus, the administration’s commitment to linking federal funding to the requirement that preschool programs have a 'rigorous curriculum' is important and evidence-based," he continued.
An end to Head Start as we know it: Obama's plan describes a new federal-state partnership for 4-year-olds and speaks of Head Start services for children from birth to age 3, again in partnership with states and communities, which it currently is not. "The administration knows that Head Start isn’t getting the job done and is proposing a bold move in a new direction," Whitehurst wrote.
There are negatives in the Obama proposals, too, according to the Brookings Institution:
Teacher credentials and pay: The plan calls for state to staff their pre-K programs with well-trained teachers, paid comparably to K-12 staff, a problematic requirement in Whitehurst's view. "Requiring states to credential and pay pre-K teachers as they credential and pay K-12 teachers assures only two things: high costs and supportive teacher unions," he wrote.
Local school district governance: "In far too many cases these would be the same school districts that are responsible for the terrible public schools that will fail to educate the very children the president’s preschool proposal is intended to benefit," the posting said.
Choice: "The administration’s plan is silent on whether and how parents will be able to exercise choice in where they send their child to pre-K," Whitehurst wrote. "Choice is important for many reasons, including its importance to parents, who are used to exercising it for preschool," he said. "It also impacts program performance and innovation because it allows for variety in programs and competition among providers."
Funding: The federal government funds a variety of programs aimed at improving early education, including Head Start, the Child Care and Development Fund, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Title I, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, Brookings Institution points out. Approximately $15 billion to $20 billion is spent annually on early education through these programs.
"At the very least, the administration should push for common data, assessment and program evaluation approaches, and a unified system for providing information to parents on center quality across these funding streams," Whitehurst wrote. "A bolder direction would be to combine these funds into a single state block grant to support the early education of vulnerable young children."