Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Childhood’s ‘long shadow’

Only 4 percent of low-income Baltimore children had earned a college degree by age 28, concludes a Johns Hopkins study that followed 790 first graders for 22 years. Forty-five percent of higher-income children went on to earn a degree.

“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander says The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood.

White men from low-income backgrounds were less likely to attend college, but more likely to find well-paying blue-collar jobs. At age 28, 45 percent were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds.

At age 18, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black drop-outs.

White women from low-income backgrounds were much more likely than black women to be in stable family unions with a working spouse or partner.

At age 28, 49 percent of black men and 41 percent of white men from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction. But whites were much more likely to be working because of their stronger social networks, the study found.

When pre-k is too late

New York City is adding prekindergarten seats to public schools, but pre-k may come too late to change the trajectory of disadvantaged children,writes Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times blog.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

A young, single mother “who thinks one book is enough” isn’t likely to expand her child’s vocabulary or knowledge of the world through talking, reading or exposition, writes Bellafante. “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she concludes.

The left is squeamish about telling poor people how to behave, Bellafante concedes. “No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.”

But perhaps paternalism can be sold as “compassion,” she concludes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone includes a Baby College, a parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. There’s an intensive preschool program to prepare three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. It’s not clear the “pipeline” concept is effective enough to justify the costs.

Preschool: We don’t know what works

Preschool is not a no-brainer, write University of Virginia professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer in a New York Times commentary. Research is murky on how to design preschool programs that help disadvantaged children.

When New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, went to Albany earlier this week to talk about his program for universal preschool, the discussion reportedly focused on funding, not on whether or how preschool would actually help children. President Obama seemed equally confident when he introduced his plan for universal preschool last year, flatly stating, “We know this works.”

Actually, we don’t.

A preschool that “works” could mean different things. It might simply be a safe spot for kids to go. Or it could be a means to get poor kids ready to learn reading and math; they are currently eight to 10 months behind wealthy kids when they start kindergarten. Mayor de Blasio and the president are more ambitious: They think that preschool ought to change life trajectories, resulting in more high school graduates and fewer prison inmates.

Preschool proponents cite the Abecedarian and Perry preschool programs from the 1960s and ’70s, which had long-term benefits. But these were “expensive, intensive” boutique programs that haven’t been replicated.

Preschools in large state programs  show variable results. Head Start, which focuses mostly on social activities, shows “minimal” academic benefits, the professors write. Pushing a kindergarten curriculum into preschool doesn’t work either.

 The preschools that do work teach less well-prepared kids precursor skills, the kind that many wealthy kids learn at home, through activities that don’t look especially academic. Songs and rhyming games, for example, help children hear that words are composed of individual sounds, making it easier to learn how to read letters. Kids gain knowledge about the world — important for reading comprehension in later elementary years — when they are read to by their parents and when they listen to them. Jigsaw puzzles and globes help kids develop spatial skills, which later help with math. Household rules teach children to learn to control their impulses, part of learning self-discipline.

If these skills aren’t being taught at home, it’s hard for a preschool teacher to make up the difference in a few hours a day, they write. “We need a national study . . . beginning at age 3 and continuing through at least second grade” to determine what “works” — and can be replicated.

Underneath the word gap

A child’s limited vocabulary reflects limited knowledge about the world, writes Esther Quintero on the Shanker Blog.

Children raised in welfare families learn far fewer words by the start of kindergarten than working-class or middle-class children, research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed.

Teaching vocabulary alone isn’t enough, writes Quintero. “We must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting ‘stuff’.”  In The Word Gap, Quintero looks at how to expand children’s vocabularies and general knowledge.

Here’s her animation on why words are the tip of the iceberg and what lies underneath.

Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.

Smart talk

Aneisha Newell, playing with daughter Alona Sharp and son Amod Newell, uses fewer directives with her children since participating in the Thirty Million Words trial, instead asking open-ended questions that give them an opportunity to respond.
Aneisha Newell, playing with children Alona and Amod, asks more open-ended questions. —Photo by Kim Palmer/Hechinger Report

Poorly educated, low-income, single mothers will talk to their babies — developing their language skills — if someone tells them it matters, writes Sara Neufeld in Slate. That’s the idea behind Chicago’s Thirty Million Words Project, which was started by a surgeon who does cochlear implants to help deaf children hear. Dana Suskind noticed the children of educated parents learned to talk quickly, once they could hear. Disadvantaged children were slow to develop language.The Thirty Million Words curriculum is delivered in 12 weekly home visits.

Every week, a young child in a participating family would spend a day wearing a small electronic device in a shirt pocket to record the number of words heard and spoken, plus the number of “turns” in a conversation—the amount of back-and-forth between parent and child. Words heard on television did not count.

Shurand Adams, 25, dropped out of high school to work at McDonald’s. She thought her 3-year-old daughter’s education would begin in kindergarten. The home visitor encouraged her to read to her daughter and pause to let her respond.

 She learned to continually engage her daughter in conversation, whether about food names in the grocery store or colors in the park. “Now I know I can just have a regular conversation with her,” Adams said. “Just ask her about her day, even if I can’t understand half of it.” She was teaching Teshyia the letters of her name on the day I met them, and she’s considering possibilities for continuing her own education.

In low-income households, parents often speak to their children in simple commands, writes Neufeld. Aneisha Newell has changed that.

“Instead of saying, ‘go put on your shoes,’ I can say, ‘All right, it’s time to go. What else do you need? … That gives my child the chance to respond, and say, ‘shoes,’ ” said Newell, 25, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son and works for a company providing recess supervision and after-school activities in Chicago Public Schools.

Newell said many of her friends and relatives think she’s crazy for talking to her daughter as if she’s an adult. “I can quote this: ‘Neisha, no one wants to sit and talk to the kids like they understand’ That’s basically the response I get.”

Her daughter peppers her with questions. She can spell her first and last names, recite her address and phone number, recognize and spell colors, and count to 200.

A summer bridge to kindergarten

California 5-year-olds with no preschool experience can prep for kindergarten over the summer, reports EdSource Today.  Free “summer bridge” programs are aimed at teaching kids to “wait their turn, raise a hand to answer a question or ask for help, play cooperatively with classmates and deal with time away from family.”

Most summer bridge programs run for half a day for two to six weeks.

A study of 828 summer preschool participants in Kern County last summer found that the program did have a clear effect. Children at all five elementary schools that hosted the program showed significant improvement in math, reading and social skills according to pre- and post-program tests.

Although programs usually pay a kindergarten teacher to teach a group of eight children, a summer bridge is far cheaper than nine months of preschool.

Selling Obama’s ‘preschool for all’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to persuade Republican governors to persuade Republicans in Congress to back $75 billion in new tobacco taxes to fund President Obama’s “preschool for all” initiative, reports the Washington Post.

“The average disadvantaged child comes to kindergarten a year to a year and a half behind other kids,” Duncan said. “And we spend all this time and money trying to catch them up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

The plan doesn’t really offer preschool to “all.”  States would get federal grants to fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The federal share would diminish from 91 percent to 25 percent after 10 years. Obama also is seeking $15 billion for programs for babies and toddlers.

Georgia has funded its own preschool program. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal wants some of the money spent on Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children. “We could do a better job of it because, frankly, our program is better,” Deal said.

Without new taxes, there isn’t enough money, Duncan responded. “I’m talking about a massive influx of resources . . . Our goal is to dramatically expand access.”

If Duncan is serious about high-quality preschool, he’ll offer Republicans more than a new federal tax, writes Mike Petrilli.

Cut the TRIO programs, which (as a recent Brookings paper shows) don’t work at preparing disadvantaged high school students for college. That’s $1 billion a year.

Cut Title II of ESEA, which is a big slush fund for school districts to spend on “teacher stuff” and class-size reduction—with no evidence of results. $3 billion a year.

Cut Pell grants, many of which are flowing to remedial-education courses from which disadvantaged students never escape. Introduce some minimal standards so that only students who are college-ready—a very low bar for community colleges, it turns out—can receive the aid. I bet you could shave $5 billion a year easy—a big chunk of it currently landing in for-profit universities.

Cut $9 billion and then ask Republicans to pitch in $1 billion in new money, Petrilli suggests.

Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits for low-income children. I think Duncan’s first step is explaining why “preschool for some” will be more effective. And why not let states expand their preschools with Head Start funding?

Preschool for all — or for the poor?

President Obama wants to spend $75 billion over 10 years on Preschool for All, partnering with states to provide “high-quality” preschool to 4-year-olds from families under 200 percent of the poverty level.

“The path to college begins in preschool,” writes Lisa Hansel on the Core Knowledge Blog. Closing achievement gaps in elementary or middle school is very, very difficult, she writes, citing Chrys Dougherty in ACT’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning.

“Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge,” writes Dougherty.

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

What makes a program high quality? It’s not cheap. Successful preschool programs in Boston and New Jersey hire well-educated teachers and pay them well, reports the Christian Science Monitor.  In addition:

They are full-day programs open to all students of a certain age group, regardless of family income.
They offer curricula linked to system-wide educational standards.
School districts monitor preschool teacher and student improvement on an ongoing basis.

In Boston, preschoolers made significantly greater gains in vocabulary, math and “executive function,” which includes working memory and paying attention to a task. The gains could be seen in third-grade test scores.

New Jersey offers high-quality pre-K in 31 low-income districts. The gains “are still visible in language, math, and science scores in fourth and fifth grades,” reports the Monitor.

“Everyone should applaud programs that are generating big gains for children who desperately need to be ready for school,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. However, we don’t know what factors lead to success, he says. The federal government should not require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, for example.

High-quality preschool costs $8,000 a year per child, estimates the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. The group suppors universal preschool rather than targeting help to disadvantaged students.  

In essence, taxpayers would fund pre-K through 12th grade for all students. (And the most effective programs work better if kids have two years of preschool.) Children who aren’t learning vocabulary, general knowledge or self-control at home can benefit from preschool. Most kids don’t need it.