Monday, July 18, 2011

The Head Start Program and Learning to Read

Back in the Clinton era a decision was made to perform a comprehensive analysis of the Head Start Program to determine its effectiveness. This study was eventually undertaken with the results becoming available several years ago. It wasn’t until last year that the report was pulished. The results apparently were little noted at the time. A few weeks ago Joe Klein took umbrage at the findings in an article in Time magazine: Head Start Doesn’t Work. It took many months for Klein’s umbrage to build, and it is apparently still growing since the on-line version carries the title Time to Ax Public Programs That Don’t Yield Results. Here is Klein’s summary of the issue:

“Indeed, Head Start did work well in several pilot programs carefully run by professionals in the 1960s. And so it was "taken to scale," as the wonks say, as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.”

“It is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.”

The “does not work” statement is based on the claim that after first grade, the children who were in the program tested essentially the same as those who did not participate in Head Start. The Head Start children seemed to be slightly better prepared entering first grade, but the differences vanished by the end of the term. Klein gives explanations of why the program “does not work” and actually praises the Obama Administration for recognizing the problem and trying to fix it. In the article he says the program must be improved. Nowhere does he say it should be “axed,” so perhaps an overzealous editor stepped in and put words in his mouth. Surely Klein understands that early childhood education has to be important and has to be done right. He also must understand that axing a program in the current political environment precludes any other legislative attempt to replace it with something better.

The Obama camp responded to the report with a press release in January 2010, the day the study report was published.

“The study showed that at the end of one program year, access to Head Start positively influenced children’s school readiness. When measured again at the end of kindergarten and first grade, however, the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied.”

“’Research clearly shows that Head Start positively impacts the school readiness of low-income children. Now we must increase its effectiveness and continue to provide the support that our children, from birth to eight, need to prepare to succeed later in school and in life,’ Secretary Sebelius said. ‘The President has looked to HHS and the Department of Education to develop a coordinated and seamless plan to get children off to great starts, and to help families and communities to break cycles of poverty’.”

“To strengthen the impact of Head Start, HHS is in the process of:

· raising program performance standards

· increasing program accountability by only renewing grants for high-quality, constantly improving programs

· improving classroom practices by providing higher quality training for classroom teachers, staff and program directors and improving technical assistance to grantees looking to improve their programs

· convening a research advisory committee to gather insights from the Head Start Impact Study and other relevant research

· partnering with the Department of Education to collaborate with early childhood education and ensuring continuity of quality programs”

Those all seem like worthy steps to take in producing a better program, but I have a concern with respect to interpreting testing results on three-to-seven year olds. Evaluating the educational attainment and potential of high school seniors is still a controversial topic. I am not sure why people think they can measure little children in a qualitatively accurate manner. When we are talking about children seven and under it is not so much what they have currently learned that is important as is their potential to learn in the future. Building a basis for educational success is not a simple matter, and certainly is not amenable to quantitative analysis.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reports on the famous study by Lewis Terman on the ultimate success of a bunch of high-IQ children. In growing up, these “brilliant” children turned out to be not much different from the general population in terms of achievements. Gladwell reports that the factor that correlated best with success or failure was family background. Successful parents tend to produce successful children.

Is a year removed from the Head Start and returned to a less structured environment sufficient to undo any benefits from the Head Start year(s)? Perhaps. Is it possible that benefits from a better early childhood experience carry through to adulthood? Perhaps. Neither of these conjectures can be answered by a year in the life of a seven year old.

The foundation of the educational experience has to be the development of an effective reading capability. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University has written a fascinating book called Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain. She provides a description of the process a child goes through in learning to be an effective and efficient reader. It is not a simple process and it relies heavily on family support, consistent with Gladwell’s claim. It also pinpoints the years five-to-seven as tumultuous years in the development of a child—perhaps not the best ages for performing assessments and drawing grand conclusions.

“Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading.”

The first step in a child’s progression is to learn to recognize figures (at about 6 months). Just try reading a little child a book without pictures. This is followed by the realization that each object has its own name (about 18 months). Once this concept is grasped the child can rapidly expand his/her vocabulary and launch into significant oral language growth. The development of oral language capability is a precursor for developing an ability to read the written language. Learning to recognize that words are made up of sounds eases the correlating of sounds with letters or groups of letters. Learning that word order alters meaning is required for interpreting written sentences. The rules of oral grammar carry over to reading and interpreting written sentences.

Reading to young children provides the important function of building vocabulary. But there are more subtle effects that are beneficial to childhood development. Wolf introduces us to a typical three-and-a-half-year-old girl.

“Through stories and books she is beginning to learn a repertoire of emotions. Stories and books are a safe place for her to begin to try these emotions on for herself, and are therefore a potentially powerful contributor to her development. At work here is a reciprocal relationship between emotional development and reading. Young children learn to experience new feelings through exposure to reading, which, in turn, prepares them to understand more complex emotions.”

“This period of childhood provides the foundation for one of the most important social, emotional, and cognitive skills a human being can learn: the ability to take on someone else’s perspective. Learning about feelings is not simple for three- to five-year-olds.”

Wolf also provides us with some critical insight into childhood physical development and the ability to read. The act of reading requires that many components or regions of the brain function quickly and in harmony.

“This integration depends on the maturation of each of the individual regions, their association areas, and the speed with which these regions can be connected and integrated. That speed, in turn, depends a great deal on the myelination of the neuron’s axons....The more myelin sheathes the axon, the faster the neuron can conduct its charge.”

“Although each of the sensory and motor regions is myelinated and functions independently before a person is five years of age, the principle regions of the brain that underlie our ability to integrate visual, verbal, and auditory information rapidly—like the angular gyrus—are not fully myelinated in most humans until five years of age and after.”

There appear to be differences in this rate of myelination between boys and girls. Boys are observed to begin to read fluently later than girls. Wolf herself has observed perceptual differences between the sexes up until about age eight.

Perhaps the most interesting data that wolf provides are the results of a European study.

“They found across three different languages that European children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven. what we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children.”

What can one conclude from all this? One thing is certain. Children of this age are going to be highly variable in their capabilities. The difference in age of a “six-year-old” can be equivalent to about 20% of their lifetime. The second conclusion is that support for early childhood development should start at birth, not at age three or four.

The question we asked—so long ago now—was if a study such as the one performed to evaluate Head Start could tell us anything meaningful about its effectiveness. I continue to think that drawing any conclusion is dangerous. What Wolf tells us is that if pre-school attention involves nothing more than reading books to children, they will benefit in ways that might not yet be apparent in seven-year-olds. Wolf and Gladwell both tell us that the general nurturing that Head Start provides can have lasting effects that are not easily measured.

So if you think you can make the program better—make it better. Where did this notion of “axing” the program come from? C’mon Joe, you’re better than that.

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