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Open Letter to Dr. Grover “Russ” Whitehurst on the Head Start Longitudinal Study

Dear Dr. Whitehurst,
Thank you for this incisive article. I am disappointed that the effects of Head Start don’t seem to follow students into elementary school. I have been a preschool teacher for the state funded pre-k program in VA 1997 to 2002 and a Head Start teacher, child development specialist, and currently hybrid HS lead teacher and leader of the Early Head Start program in our school system. I know that by asking us to be hard headed you are asking us to consider the evidence. I also ask that we consider as another commenter suggested, what is not in the evidence. Head Start effects more than just the children enrolled.
I agree that earlier intervention seems promising. My work and minimal research into Early Head Start shows that EHS has a greater influence on parents than on students. I wonder if this might be a clue to where we need to focus our policy, practice, and research of HS. Students who enter HS at birth and participate through to kindergarten is a specialized group that may present some contrary evidence. In my dissertation, (you are well cited thank you ;) I found that Head Start teachers in my small mixed methods study engaged students in literacy but also attempted to engage parents in the dominant culture where literacy has value. This two pronged approach emerged from the engagement of parents in their homes around children’s learning and family goals. I know that Head Start done half way is worth less than half of what is spent. It is a false promise. But, in high quality Head Start settings I think we might find the effects lasting and important for children and families. Fundamentally though, I think we are asking Head Start to do what it is not able to do, fix the effects of poverty in one or two years.
Head Start has always been more of a social intervention than an academic one. The more we ask HS to make children living in poverty like children who don’t, or continue to remove family and social supports once they leave HS the more disappointed we will be. Zigler argued against using IQ as a measure of success in the 60s. I argue the same here. I think your suggestion that HS funds go to state programs is a great idea but, I left my state program prek to make a bigger difference with children and parents in HS. The quality control in HS is higher than in any state funded program I know. In VA the state funded prek oversight has been reduced to a single individual. There are no site visits and the data collected is minimal. The biggest difference though is that Head Start requires home visits the state prek doesn’t. This is where parents connect to teachers and relationships are formed that transform families.
So, is HS failing children and families? Yes, at times it is. But it is a matter of quality erasure. I wrote when the Head Start Impact study was released in 2010,

Head Start needs to acknowledge this report and NOT change the subject. We need to take it as a call to action. I have been asked several times if I am interested in directing a Head Start program. My answer has always been, I am not sure. The program is 40 years old and has not undergone a major revision of performance standards to my knowledge. Much has been added over the years, from Training and Technical Assistance partnerships to requirements of bachelors for half a program’s lead teachers, but nothing has been taken away. It must be difficult for a director to consistently meet the performance standards and not have to cut some quality corners in other parts of their program. As a teacher recently told me, “Head Start requires us to meet standards but doesn’t make it possible to do it.”

A lot has changed in the past 40 years in early childhood education. A significant revision of the performance standards, with a focus on research based quality indicators would go a long way towards changing the results of this study.

Head Start is overdue for a major revision. Maybe now we can refocus on what the program can do and not what it can’t.

One Comment

  1. Betty Boone says:

    I agree!! There need to be more voices like this to ensure that the message is being heard along with meanifull strategies not just adhoc ideas and programs. There is a need to educate in a non-traditional way that can change attitudes, behaviors and awareness. As we can see that doing things the same old way for the past 40 years has some merits yet, lacks the ability to switch gears to make changes to the today’s families that are much more complexed.

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