Refocus Head Start on its Mission: Education

January 17, 2003

When I was a young parent, I read to my children every day. When walking in the neighborhood, we read shop signs. They quickly learned letters and new words, and they were good readers by the time they started school. The children of parents who read with them regularly begin school with larger vocabularies than those children whose parents do not have the time or education to introduce them to literacy. The Head Start program was created in 1964 to give poor children the same kinds of educational opportunities that their more-advantaged peers get informally at home. Unfortunately, over the years, the program has abandoned its focus on education in favor of an array of social services, nutrition and counseling. After nearly 40 years and many billions of dollars, Head Start children still begin kindergarten far behind children from middle-class homes on measures of school readiness.

Most Head Start teachers do not have a college degree and are poorly paid. A large proportion of them are parents of Head Start students. As if to echo the program’s isolation from educational goals, it is located in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, not in the Department of Education.

The last evaluation of the program, conducted in 1998, found that the typical entering student could not identify a single letter of the alphabet. At the end of a year, the same child could identify only one or two letters and had learned only 11 new words. Head Start children were not learning these skills because their teachers were not teaching them.

Head Start has no standard curriculum for school readiness, and the centers receive no guidance about which skills and knowledge to teach. Instead, Head Start prides itself on its extreme decentralization, regardless of its lack of success in preparing children for school experiences.

The Bush administration is trying to change this situation by proposing that Head Start teachers be trained in literacy techniques. Remarkably, leaders of many Head Start centers are opposed to the new emphasis on literacy. Some are even refusing to participate in literacy training.

Head Start will never fulfill its original promise until the program recognizes its responsibility to give disadvantaged children what advantaged children receive every day: immersion in reading, an enlarged vocabulary and the joy of learning. Head Start cannot close the cognitive gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children until it has better-educated teachers, better-paid teachers and a determination to prepare its nearly 1 million students for school.