Troubling Inconsistencies in Head Start


This post was written by Associate Professor of Social Work Lenette Azzi-Lessing, PhD. Her work focuses on improving the well being and life chances of vulnerable, young children and their families, particularly those living in poverty and those involved in the child welfare system. She is the founding director of Wheelock’s Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Mental Health and is faculty leader of the college’s Partnership for Early Childhood Development in South Africa. Lenette is the author of numerous works, the most recent being “Behind from the Start: How America’s War on the Poor is Harming Our Most Vulnerable Children.”

The ongoing debate about whether Head Start works typically assumes that the program provides comparable services to impoverished preschoolers throughout the country.  A new study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), however, reveals dramatic differences in Head Start programs based on location.  Its State(s) of Head Start report is the first to examine and compare multiple aspects of programs across states.

With approximately $9 billion dollars of federal funding, Head Start is the nation’s largest preschool program, one that targets low-income 3 and 4-year-olds. NIEER’s report shows that the percentage of poor children who have access to the program and the quality of the services they receive depend on where they live. States vary dramatically in teachers’ qualifications and pay levels, the number of hours per week programs operate and other characteristics.

Some of the contrasts are stark, beginning with enrollment rates. For example, Nevada provides Head Start to only 7% of its low-income preschoolers, while North Dakota enrolls virtually all of them. Massachusetts provides 22% of our low-income three and four year olds with Head Start, slightly above the national average of 18%.  The amount of services children receive varies as well. Nationally, nearly one-half of participating children receive full-day, full-week instruction.  However, only 27% of the Bay State’s Head Start children are in full-time programs. Some states provide a full-time program to nearly all the children they serve.

The starkest contrasts are in teacher qualifications and pay. Nationally, 73% of Head Start teachers hold a Bachelor’s Degree.  However, just over one third of New Mexico’s Head Start teachers have degrees, while 90% of those in West Virginia do. Massachusetts programs are in the middle of these extremes, with 62% of our Head Start teachers having a degree. College-educated Head Start teachers are paid an average of $24,000 less than those teaching in our public schools. These differences also vary across states. Massachusetts is one of two states with the highest gaps between the average salaries of its college-educated Head Start teachers at $28,788 per year, and its public school teachers, who average $75,398.

These disparities matter. As the study’s authors conclude, “Although in some states Head Start meets… quality standards and serves a high percentage of low-income children statewide, in other states Head Start reaches fewer of those in need, often with low-quality instruction and insufficient hours.” Encouragingly, they found that Head Start programs in nearly all states create classroom environments and provide support to children at levels that reach widely accepted standards. However, many programs come up short in helping young students develop pre-literacy and problem-solving skills. This may help to explain why some of the gains in learning that Head Start achieves tend to fade in elementary school.

Additional research suggests that the education levels and turnover rates of teachers- factors largely driven by salary size- play a significant role in program quality. This gets us to the issue of funding. And here, too, we see dramatic disparities across states. The highest funded state receives twice as much federal funding per child enrolled in Head Start as does the lowest funded state. Looking beyond the inequities this gap represents we see that at $8800, the average funding per child is well below that of model programs found to achieve multiple, lasting and important gains for young children in poverty. Replicating the two best-known programs, Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention Project, would cost more than double what’s spent on Head Start. That’s because these programs had higher standards for teacher qualifications and instruction quality, and augmented classroom learning with a comprehensive array of services designed to improve the nurturing that poor young children receive at home.

Given our nation’s stubbornly high child poverty rates, it’s been clear for some time that we need to spend substantially more, and more wisely, on our efforts to eliminate dramatically disparate outcomes, in education and in life, between impoverished children and their non-poor peers. The new NIEER report provides yet more evidence that both our state and our nation need to step up these efforts, in order for all children, regardless of where they live, to have a fair shot at a successful future.

Behind from the Start: How America’s War on the Poor is Harming Our Most Vulnerable Children is available for purchase through Oxford University Press.

For more information about Dr. Azzi-Lessing, visit her bio page.



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