Thursday, June 9, 2005

The federal government’s Head Start study shows that the program didn’t affect preschoolers — especially 4-year-olds — in half of the 30 categories measured, including most behavioral areas.

This isn’t good news for elementary school teachers, who require basic behavioral skills, such as the ability to sit still, pay attention and cooperate in class activities, in their students.

“I can tell you this: When you survey kindergarten teachers, this is the dimension they point to the most often. It’s as if they were to say, ‘Give us a kid who will behave, pay attention, sit in the seat, not cause trouble and we can teach him to read and write,’” said Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. But if children have behavioral problems, “not only will they learn less, but other kids in the classroom learn less, too.”

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) yesterday released its first report on a national, long-term study designed to show how the $6.7 billion Head Start program affects low-income children. The department oversees the Head Start program, which focuses on increasing school readiness for pre-kindergartners from low-income families.

HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said that although Head Start children clearly reaped some positive benefits, they continued to “lag significantly” on most measures behind children from higher-income families. But Democratic congressional leaders and the National Head Start Association (NHSA) said the report confirms that Head Start works.

The program affected children’s pre-reading skills and parental participation, said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Researchers indicate that both of those factors lead to success in school, Mr. Miller said.

The HHS report shows “very good progress” for children, even if they are in the program for only one year, said Sarah Greene, head of NHSA, a trade group for 1,700 Head Start grantees.

“These are our nation’s most disadvantaged children and they face multiple and often very severe barriers to learning,” she said. One year of Head Start “cannot erase all of these barriers.”

However, she said, the report shows that in many instances, Head Start “works as intended” to get these children ready for school.

The HHS study measures children on 20 areas of academic skills, social behavior and health, and measures Head Start parents on 10 areas in educational activities, discipline strategies and child-safety practices.

The report says the program was most effective with 3-year-olds, with significant improvements registered in 14 out of the 30 categories and six out of nine cognitive measures. However, it helped 4-year-olds in only six of the 30 categories.

In the six behavioral categories, Head Start reduced hyperactivity and overall “problem” behaviors in 3-year-olds, but had no effect on the behaviors of 4-year-olds.

Mr. Haskins, who has written extensively on early childhood issues, said the cognitive results are “better than I anticipated,” but warned that most of the effects are modest and unlikely to last. “I think Head Start is a so-so program. It needs to really get much better, and I think a lot can be done,” he said.

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