The Great Debate

Does Head Start work?

Is this near five-decade commitment to give every child an opportunity to succeed in life worth the money? At a time when the federal government faces difficult fiscal choices, the question is appropriate. Many expected the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start Impact Study, which was released on Friday, to provide definitive answers.

As it turns out, those expectations were overblown. While the study documented children’s significant gains at the end of the Head Start experience and the flattening benefits of Head Start attendance at the end of third grade, it did not examine a range of factors that could have contributed to the losses and cannot predict whether Head Start children may yet show outcomes into adulthood. A wealth of other studies address these questions and document Head Start’s long-term effectiveness.

One question the HHS study does answer definitively is whether Head Start does its job. The program gets at-risk children ready for kindergarten in every aspect the study measured. After one year in Head Start, children showed gains in vocabulary, letter-word identification, mathematics and social-emotional development compared with peers. In addition, parents involved with the program used more appropriate discipline and spent more time engaging in literacy activities with their children.

These findings affirm the Head Start model in design and in practice. Head Start’s success over the decades has been built on evidence-based practices. The model, informed by programs like the Perry Preschool, an influential  project that tracked children for decades, is constantly adapting ‑ using the best available science and teaching techniques to meet the needs of local communities.

Head Start programs offer an ideal laboratory for the study of effective child development and learning. HSS funds extensive research every year on Head Start and Early Head Start. Current projects include studying social-emotional curriculum supports, teacher coaching practices for professional development and analyzing the learning profiles of children with limited English proficiency. This research reinvigorates Head Start’s practices, ensuring that programs meet children’s needs by creating a deep understanding of how students learn and what supports healthy development.

Creating an upscale service economy

The American economy is irrevocably shifting from manufacturing to services. Our workforce has gone from 28 percent factory workers and 72 percent service workers in 1978 to 14 percent factory workers and 86 percent service workers today.

But the service sector encompasses tens of millions of “bad” jobs that are unstable and offer low pay with few benefits – routine clerical work, for example, or retail sales, fast food or low-end human services such as nurse’s aides – alongside a relatively small number of well-compensated professional positions, including doctors, lawyers and scientists, as well as astronomically rich investors and plutocrats in the financial sector.

As we move into this service economy, there are political choices to be made – or evaded. We can allow our increasingly laissez-faire economy to take a low road of underpaid and under-professionalized service jobs. Or we can use social investment, taxation and public borrowing to create more high-level careers in the human services, which will, in turn, help stimulate an economic recovery and stem the tide of inequality.

Quality early education: Good for kids and the economy

Joan Wasser Gish– Joan Wasser Gish is a consultant in the Boston area. A former senior policy adviser to Senator John Kerry, she recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship. The views expressed are her own. –

When the toys are put away and the last youngster is picked up for the day, early childhood education providers like all other entrepreneurs sit down to assess their revenues, account for expenses and make difficult business decisions. And though their services are rife with hugs and games and songs, their work has serious implications for the economy. The child-care sector is a critical driver of economic growth and workforce development. That is why financial leaders and policymakers should do more to support providers as both educators and small-business entrepreneurs.

There are more than 400,000 licensed child-care facilities across the country. They span the economic sectors, with the majority run as sole proprietorship home-based businesses, and the rest split between for-profit and non-profit centers offering early education and care. Most are run by women, and a significant proportion are owned and operated by members of minority groups. Because of the early education and care services they provide, they contribute to both short- and long-term economic growth.