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Updated 10:00 AM February 13, 2006




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  MLK Symposium
Panel: Head Start positive, but improvements needed

Four decades after its inception, Head Start—a pre-school program designed to serve development needs of preschool children in low-income families—could be more effective in improving learning and development outcomes for children, panelists said Feb. 6 at an event exploring the program's history.

U-M Professor Maris Vinovskis, author of the recent book "The Origins of Head Start," reviewed early efforts to improve Head Start and called for a more rigorous, bipartisan assessment of the program during the panel discussion sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and its research center, the National Poverty Center.

Vinovskis spoke at the "Head Start Turns 40: Historical Perspectives and Recent Research" event, part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium. Panelists included Ronna Cook, associate director of the Human Services Research Group at Westat Inc. and Interim Provost Edward Gramlich, who served as moderator.

"If Head Start children enter school behind other kids, they are not likely to catch up academically," Vinovskis said. "We have spent $114 billion in current dollars on Head Start since 1965, but we still don't know what are the most effective ways of helping those children succeed in schools."

Contrary to previous accounts of Head Start history, Vinovskis said he discovered that federal involvement in early childhood education first was proposed in the Kennedy administration. And rather than opposing Head Start, House Republicans championed early childhood education in the mid-1960s while their Democratic colleagues in Congress initially were less enthusiastic about the idea, he said.

In 1998, Congress authorized the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a national study on Head Start's impact on children. HHS awarded a contract to Maryland-based Westat to conduct the research.

Cook presented preliminary results from the study, which assessed nearly 5,000 3- and 4-year olds. Data collection began in fall 2002 and followed children through the spring of their first-grade year.

Some of the findings:

• Comparing skill levels of children in the study with those of the general U.S. population of 3- and 4-year-olds—including those not from low-income families—on the Woodcock-Johnson III Letter-Word Identification test showed that, after one year, the mean performance of Head Start children still was below the average level for all children. At the end of one year, however, Head Start was able to nearly cut in half the achievement gap that would be expected in the absence of a program;

• Among children in the 3-year-old group, the frequency and severity of problem behavior reported by parents was lower for children in the Head Start group compared to those in the non-Head Start group;

• Head Start had a small, positive effect on the extent to which parents reported reading to their children. Positive effects were found for 3-year-olds when their parents exposed them to a variety of cultural enrichment activities such as taking them to a museum or a zoo.

"We've seen positive effects in preliminary findings, but some areas need improvement," Cook said.

To review the report, visit:

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