Happy 50th Birthday, Head Start!

05/21/2015 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016


This week marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start! Children, please look up from your sand tables and dress-up corners and finger-painting tables and sing "Happy Birthday"! Gloria, I'm watching you. Do not even think of putting finger paint in Michael's hair! Is everyone ready?

Of all the Great Society programs, Head Start is perhaps the most popular. It provides center-based services to millions of very cute 3- and 4-year-olds, mostly children from disadvantaged families. If members of the public, educators, and policy makers know a single conclusion from educational research, it is that early-childhood programs have substantial and long-term positive impacts. As one consequence of this understanding, President Obama and his administration have pushed hard to expand Head Start and other early-childhood programs to serve many more children.

Does Head Start work? Well, it all depends on what you mean by "Head Start" and what you mean by "work." Some highly enriched early-childhood models, such as the famous Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian program, do have evidence of long-term gains in important life outcomes not enjoyed by similar children who did not attend preschool at all. However, longitudinal evaluations of run-of-the-mill Head Start programs find limited impacts into kindergarten and few detectable differences afterwards. As a result of these evaluations, early-childhood experts are now careful to say that "high-quality" early-childhood or Head Start programs work, leaving undefined exactly what they mean by "high-quality."

As more children enroll in Head Start and other early-childhood programs, the question has moved from "Does it help disadvantaged children attend early-childhood programs?" to "What kinds of early-childhood programs should be provided to disadvantaged children?" Here there is ferocious debate. On one side are traditionalists who insist that early-childhood programs emphasize play, imagination, listening to stories, singing, and crafts, for example, but not phonemic awareness or other pre-reading skills. Such "developmental" programs are designed to ease children into the school in a home-like setting and build children's language, school skills, and general orientation toward learning.

On the other side there are some educators who believe that disadvantaged children in pre-kindergarten need to be taught like first graders to ingrain the school readiness, literacy, and math skills necessary to succeed in school. In the middle are "balanced" programs, advocated by those who believe that in addition to play, exploration, imagination, and language, it is beneficial to expose children to phonemic awareness, phonics, and other pre-reading as well as early math skills, on the principle that it is important to give disadvantaged preschoolers a, well, "head start" on the skills that will soon determine their success in school. Preschool should not look like third grade, with kids in rows answering questions and doing worksheets. (In fact, third grade should not look like this, either.) Phonemic awareness and phonics in balanced programs are typically introduced in preschool using rhymes, games, songs, and exploratory activities to learn the sounds and shapes of letters. As phonics and math have definitively pushed their way into kindergarten, traditionalists hold onto preschool as the last bastion of child-centered education, while advocates of balanced programs argue that children need to be prepared for the settings in which they will soon find themselves.

My colleagues and I are carrying out a review of research on the literacy and language outcomes of different approaches to early-childhood education. (Watch for it in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia in the next month or so.) Our findings are very interesting. We focused on studies that compared children in "developmental" programs with those in "balanced" programs, which are ones that include most elements of developmental programs but also include direct teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics. Not surprisingly, both in preschool and on kindergarten follow-up measures, children who participated in balanced programs performed much better on assessments of early reading skills. Perhaps more surprisingly, these children also performed better than those in the developmental programs on measures of language, in preschool and on kindergarten follow-up.

What our findings suggest is that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness in preschool is beneficial for reading and, far from undermining children's language development, also enhances performance in this arena.

It is probably unrealistic to expect that one year of quality early childhood will turn around a child's life forever, but seen as the beginning of a progression from high-quality preschool into high-quality kindergarten into high-quality elementary and secondary school, preschool is very important. Our review supports the idea that a portion of the precious time preschool teachers have with young children can be devoted to building pre-reading skills without harming language development, and in fact contributing to overall performance.

And that's a head start worth celebrating!