Head Start, Some Say, Isn’t Helping Kids Catch Up


Minutes before children begin arriving, preschool teacher Sue Gainsley writes the morning message on a white board. Instead of words, she uses what appear to be hieroglyphics.

To show that two of the children--Dali and Bing--will be absent, she superimposes the international symbol for no--a red circle with a line through it--over a fish and a moon, the two students’ assigned symbols.

“The 5-year-olds will be able to read this right away,” says Gainsley, a teacher at the High/Scope Demonstration Preschool here.

The use of symbols, often instead of words, is one of the characteristic features of High/Scope, considered by many educators to be the most influential preschool in America. The approach, embraced by many Head Start programs nationwide, stems from the notion that words are too abstract for young children and hurt their self-esteem if they can’t read them.


But this national model is under attack by President Bush, who thinks the $6.2-billion Head Start program, which serves 1 million impoverished children, isn’t doing enough to help children catch up academically.

Bush and his advisors seek to put $75 million into training preschool teachers as part of their education package, which was approved by the Senate last week. They want a greater focus on teaching and less emphasis on what they call “fluff"--even in preschool.

Bush’s top advisors contend that Head Start’s failings are one factor in the widening achievement gap between children from affluent and poor families.

Indeed, a recent evaluation of 1,600 Head Start children found that, on average, they recognized only two letters--often fewer than they’d known when beginning the program.


“A probable reason,” researchers found, was that most teachers “do not give children’s acquisition of these skills a particularly high priority.”

High/Scope defenders counter that too much teaching destroys children’s curiosity and can even make them antisocial later on. Teachers in the program’s demonstration preschool are loath to even ask children questions, saying it will impose adult ideas on their explorations.

“Children naturally initiate things,” said Ann S. Epstein, who directs the preschool. “It’s sad to see programs that, in a sense, kill what’s natural in children” by teaching too much, too early.

But a report from the National Research Council last year concluded that preschoolers are often underestimated by educators. The report, called “Eager to Learn,” said, “The striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children.” Abstractions, such as letters or letter-sounds or syllables, are well within their grasp, as is complex reasoning.

Indeed, children learn the most, the report said, when they’re challenged to learn concepts as well as skills, including connecting the letters of the alphabet to sounds and written numbers to quantities.

In light of that and other research, Bush administration officials say it makes no sense to deliberately hide letters from children, as approaches such as High/Scope seem to do.

“It’s been hard for us to figure out where that’s coming from,” said Reid Lyon, who heads reading research for the National Institutes of Health and who has become Bush’s top reading advisor. “We know from our own data that 4-year-olds not only can learn letters and sounds but that they like it.”

The children of the middle and upper classes, he said, are exposed constantly to stories as well as reading and writing skills by their parents.


Head Start, he argues, should do the same for poor kids.

Although it sometimes seems like a spat over how and how early children should be taught phonics, the debate over Head Start actually goes back to the program’s founding in 1964 as part of the War on Poverty.

The program was supposed to help prepare children for school by addressing their social and physical well-being as well as their academic preparation. But academics have usually taken a back seat to health exams and immunizations, promoting parent involvement and teaching toddlers to “use their words” instead of fists.

Today that seems to be changing amid growing concerns that more than two-thirds of poor children aren’t learning to read adequately.

Program’s Funding Has Jumped Dramatically

At the same time, spending on Head Start has risen dramatically, from $1.2 billion in 1989 to a proposed $6.3 billion for next year. That’s gotten the attention of some economists and educators who say the investment is not paying off. Three years ago new rules required Head Start programs to teach children at least 10 letters, to develop a wider vocabulary and to learn that letters convey sounds.

That shift has prompted changes in Head Start programs such as the one in Southfield, Mich., a Detroit suburb. Offered up by Bush administration officials as a possible model, the program gives children practice in writing and reading as well as plenty of time to play. Not surprisingly, the morning message is written in words.

“It’s shocking how much they notice about words and letters,” teacher Nikki Kane said, after pointing out to her class that “my,” “mother” and “me” all start with M.


Arthur W. Stellar, who took over as the president and chief executive of High/Scope in January, argues that his program’s approach is supported by research and satisfies new Head Start rules.

Stellar said that the uneven results achieved by Head Start programs indicate that not all programs that use the High/Scope methods are doing so properly.

High/Scope was founded in 1962 at the Perry Preschool in a low-income, African American neighborhood on the south side of Ypsilanti. When 58 of the original students reached age 15, High/Scope’s founders reported less criminal behavior and teen pregnancy than among those in a comparison group who had not attended the school.

A follow-up report on that group at age 27 found they were earning more, were more likely to be married and less likely to be substance abusers. High/Scope contends that, from its data, every $1 spent on preschool saves $7 in later social costs, such as incarceration.

Criticisms of that research as a model for Head Start are plentiful. The original High/Scope group was small. The High/Scope program was an expensive Cadillac compared to the more modest Chevrolet program of Head Start. Follow-up analyses found that girls benefited far more than boys.

Nonetheless, the reports have been widely publicized and, in the 1980s, served to rebuild waning support for Head Start.

High/Scope has a more than theoretical interest in maintaining its prestige. The nonprofit organization--of which the preschool is only a part--relies for its $15-million budget on foundation grants and on revenues from selling its curriculum and training teachers. Stellar said its customers include about a third of the nation’s 16,000 Head Start programs, in addition to other preschools in the U.S. and internationally and even some elementary schools.

Stellar said High/Scope is willing to change its approach if research shows it needs to. “We’re less ideologues on this issue and we’re searching for the truth,” he said.

Yet, if those who run the preschool are concerned about meeting demands for more emphasis on structure, it’s not evident from visiting the demonstration classroom.

While many of the children seem eager to learn to read or write, there’s little evidence they’re getting help in doing so.

The first 20 minutes of the day are for books. On a recent day, a girl with blond pigtails named Miranda first plays with a puzzle, then fills a slate with the letters H and A. “This is my name,” she says to her mother. “Beautiful,” comes the response.

Three boys bring Gainsley a book called “The Young Baseball Player” and she sits with them on the floor looking at the pictures and talking about video games and a birthday visit to Chuck E. Cheese. A girl finds a book about monsters that’s a classroom favorite. “I read that four times yesterday,” says Gainsley’s co-teacher, Rosie Lucier.

None of the books in the room are easy enough for the children to read themselves.

Next comes the heart of the half-day program, known as work time. The idea is that children will first talk about their plans, carry them out and then review what they did--all of which is supposed to build oral language skills. The plans quickly evaporate as children focus on the rich array of blocks, toy trains and dress-up clothes.

A girl named Lauren dresses up as a bride in a flowing aqua gown and blue gloves. She spontaneously makes an invitation, drawing a sun and writing “Happy Son” on the front.

Children Make Progress at Their Own Pace

Epstein argues that such activities show that children are making progress toward reading, but at their own pace. Most days, she says, children will ask to be read to during “work” time. Afterward, some will draw a picture of what they did. Or they will spontaneously tell a story, which the teachers will transcribe.

She says the children see plenty of words around the room, in the labels for “Kitchen Area” or “Book Area” and in the daily schedule. But she decried the use of “scripted” lessons that drill preschoolers on their letters.

“One-size-fits-all lessons don’t work,” she said.

The back-and-forth on the issue has left many experts in how young children learn on the fence. On the one hand, they say the High/Scope model is outdated. On the other, they fear the administration’s sharp focus on reading will bring on a regimen of work sheets and flashcards. That, says Deborah Stipek, the dean of Stanford University’s School of Education, would cause preschoolers to learn less, not more.

The White House this summer will host a conference of early childhood experts to explore the issue.

Margaret La Mantagne, Bush’s chief domestic policy advisor, said critics are wrong when they charge that the administration plans to “put 2- and 3-year-olds in desks and give them pencils and books and rap their knuckles for wrong answers.”

On the other hand, she said, “We do have evidence about what it takes for kids to become readers and it’s not playing with shaving cream.”