NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Holding Head Start Accountable for Results

May 8, 2003

Is the 38 year-old Head Start program a federally funded baby-sitting service, or a successful prekindergarten education program for disadvantaged children?

The president has proposed that this year's Head Start reauthorization bill require the program's 900,000 children take a 15- to 20-minute standardized test. The idea is not to assess individual students but to collect data to find out if local programs are effective in teaching basic literacy and math skills.

Bush also wants to move Head Start from Health and Human Services to the Education Department, and to give states the option of taking it over.

  • Since its inception in 1965, Head Start has been charged with helping disadvantaged children develop literacy, verbal and math skills and also provides comprehensive health, dental and nutritional services.
  • There are roughly 1,400 Head Start programs nationwide, but only about 38 percent of eligible families, or those generally below the federal poverty rate, are able to participate, leading to calls for more funds for the $6.8 billion program.
  • Some studies that show Head Start children not only lag behind their peers, but lose any gains by second or third grade. (Head Start supporters point to studies showing the opposite.)

However, the president has held up the curriculum used at 36 Head Start centers in Dallas as a gold standard.

The curriculum, called Language Enrichment Activities Program (LEAP), was designed by Nell Carvell, a childhood literacy expert at Southern Methodist University. It strongly emphasizes pre-reading and vocabulary development.

Reading scores soared after LEAP was introduced at Dallas Head Start centers in 1994, and a Dallas school attended by many former Head Start students produced some of the highest test scores in Texas despite a heavily poor student body drawn primarily from a public housing project.

Source: Robert Dodge and Joshua Benton, "Plan worries Head Start supporters," Dallas Morning News, May 7, 2003.


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