How Everything We Know About Early Childhood Has Changed Since Head Start Was Founded

Fifty years of research — and “Sesame Street” — have changed our understanding of how to best help disadvantaged kids.

Actress Jennifer Garner plays with children before a briefing on expanding early childhood education from birth to age 5 at the US Capitol on November 13, 2013. Research over the past 50 years has changed both theories and policies on what kind of early interventions for disadvantaged children are most effective.
National Journal
Amy Sullivan and Janell Ross
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Amy Sullivan Janell Ross
April 18, 2014, 8:23 a.m.

In 1912, a teach­er in the one-room school­house out­side Stone­wall, Texas, made a de­cision that would ul­ti­mately lead to bil­lions of dol­lars in fed­er­al in­vest­ment, volumes of re­search, and on­go­ing, dec­ades-long de­bate about the value of early child­hood edu­ca­tion.

The teach­er agreed to ad­mit a 4-year-old boy who would go on to be­come Pres­id­ent Lyn­don John­son.

As pres­id­ent, John­son el­ev­ated the work of re­du­cing poverty to a na­tion­al pri­or­ity — and giv­ing the na­tion’s poor chil­dren early op­por­tun­it­ies to learn ranked among his top policy goals. “You have to un­der­stand that John­son had been a teach­er,” says Joseph Cal­i­fano  Jr., a John­son ad­viser and former sec­ret­ary of Health, Edu­ca­tion, and Wel­fare. “He was well aware of the vast dif­fer­ences in the way a Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an child typ­ic­ally grew up in South Texas and a white, wealthy child lived on the Up­per East side of Man­hat­tan.”

The res­ult was a na­tion­wide fo­cus on early child­hood and ef­forts to level the play­ing field for less-af­flu­ent chil­dren — par­tic­u­larly in urb­an areas so that poor chil­dren would no longer ar­rive at school with learn­ing de­fi­cits. Am­bi­tious policy pro­grams like the Great So­ci­ety and the War on Poverty led to ex­per­i­ment­al in­ter­ven­tions like Head Start and Ses­ame Street. Fifty years later, we have a much bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the child­hood skills and en­vir­on­ments that can lead to suc­cess later in life. Even so, many ques­tions re­main shrouded in dis­pute and de­bate.

Big Bird and ABCs

From their very be­gin­nings, preschool pro­grams were de­veloped spe­cific­ally as in­ter­ven­tions to help lower-in­come chil­dren. One of the first known preschools was es­tab­lished in Lon­don in 1910 to ad­dress the so­cial, emo­tion­al, and in­tel­lec­tu­al needs of poor, urb­an chil­dren — and, ad­voc­ates hoped, in­cul­cate them with a sense of mor­al­ity and val­ues. Around the same time, Maria Montessori was work­ing with poor chil­dren in Rome to hone her the­or­ies on child-driv­en, self-mo­tiv­ated learn­ing.

Re­search­ers in the U.S. really began to fo­cus on some of the vast learn­ing gaps between poor and wealthy kids in the 1950s, says Jane Wald­fo­gel, a pro­fess­or of so­cial work and pub­lic af­fairs at Columbia Uni­versity. Edu­ca­tion­al psy­cho­lo­gists like Ben­jamin Bloom and J. McVick­er Hunt pub­lished ground­break­ing work based on lon­git­ud­in­al stud­ies that con­firmed the mal­le­ab­il­ity of chil­dren in their earli­est years. Child ex­perts also gained valu­able in­sights on the im­port­ance of qual­ity early par­ent­ing when the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion com­mis­sioned Brit­ish psy­chi­at­rist John Bowlby to study the men­tal health of orphaned chil­dren in Europe after World War II.

Sud­denly, early child­hood in­ter­ven­tion looked like a po­ten­tial weapon in the war on poverty. If cog­ni­tion was not set, but could be de­veloped, then even chil­dren born in­to fam­il­ies and com­munit­ies with few re­sources could po­ten­tially gain skills early on that would im­prove their lives as adults. This new re­search provided much of the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the Head Start pro­gram — which began as a sum­mer pi­lot pro­ject in 1965 and ex­pan­ded to year-round shortly there­after — as well as the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s de­cision to provide half of the ori­gin­al $8 mil­lion needed to launch the pub­lic tele­vi­sion show Ses­ame Street when it premiered in 1969. Both in­ter­ven­tions were tar­geted at low-in­come preschool­ers, with the goal of re­du­cing the learn­ing gap by the time they star­ted kinder­garten.

Sharp de­bates over the goals of early child­hood pro­grams, and who the pro­viders and re­cip­i­ents of this fed­er­ally fun­ded edu­ca­tion should be, sur­roun­ded Head Start at the be­gin­ning — as they still do 50 years later. Head Start sup­port­ers also wor­ried that Ses­ame Street might lead par­ents and poli­cy­makers to de­cide that tele­vi­sion could be a re­place­ment for early classroom learn­ing.

It wasn’t long, however, be­fore re­search­ers turned their at­ten­tion to study­ing wheth­er these in­ter­ven­tions were pro­du­cing the de­sired res­ults. The Edu­ca­tion­al Test­ing Ser­vice con­duc­ted two eval­u­ations in the early 1970s that in­dic­ated Ses­ame Street had a sig­ni­fic­ant edu­ca­tion­al im­pact on kids who watched reg­u­larly, par­tic­u­lar chil­dren from non-Eng­lish-speak­ing homes. In fact, chil­dren from low-in­come homes who watched the pro­gram scored high­er on let­ter-re­cog­ni­tion and oth­er lan­guage skills than chil­dren from high-in­come homes who were not reg­u­lar view­ers.

The res­ults from Head Start were more mixed. By the early 1980s, stud­ies star­ted show­ing that the short-term IQ gains from Head Start edu­ca­tion could fade away by the time a child reached third or fourth grade. However, there were be­ne­fits to Head Start par­ti­cip­a­tion that didn’t show up on achieve­ment tests — and those ap­peared prom­ising. Head Start stu­dents ended up be­ing held back less of­ten when they moved onto ele­ment­ary and middle school, and they had few­er re­fer­rals for spe­cial edu­ca­tion.

The Im­port­ance of So­cial and Emo­tion­al Skills

Then, in 1994, the pub­lic­a­tion of The Bell Curve threw a gren­ade in­to de­bates over early child­hood in­ter­ven­tions. The book, writ­ten by psy­cho­lo­gist Richard Her­rn­stein and polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Charles Mur­ray, ar­gued that abil­ity and in­tel­lect are ge­net­ic­ally de­term­ined. Sud­denly the old nature-versus-nur­ture de­bate, which had been mostly dormant for sev­er­al dec­ades, roared back — and it at­trac­ted the re­search in­terest of Uni­versity of Chica­go eco­nom­ist James Heck­man, who was just a few years away from win­ning the No­bel Prize for his work on eco­no­met­rics.

Once Heck­man star­ted look­ing in­to early child­hood in­ter­ven­tions, he real­ized that as­sess­ments needed to in­clude non­cog­nit­ive out­comes — the abil­ity to self-mo­tiv­ate, ex­hib­it self-con­trol, and work to­ward long-term goals. Those so­cial and emo­tion­al skills could in­flu­ence wheth­er a child later got in­volved in crime, stayed in high school, or was re­spons­ible for a teen preg­nancy.

This in­sight — that teach­ing chil­dren how to learn can be just as im­port­ant as the con­tent of what they learn — has been one of two key de­vel­op­ments in the area of early in­ter­ven­tions. The oth­er is a re­cog­ni­tion that chil­dren are only part of the equa­tion. As a Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences com­mit­tee re­coun­ted in its re­port,  ”From Neur­ons to Neigh­bor­hoods: The Sci­ence of Early Child­hood De­vel­op­ment,” “the field of early child­hood in­ter­ven­tion evolved from its ori­gin­al fo­cus on chil­dren to a grow­ing ap­pre­ci­ation of the ex­tent to which fam­ily, com­munity, and broad­er so­ci­et­al factors af­fect child health and de­vel­op­ment.” The more re­cent in­terest in home vis­it pro­grams that can im­prove par­ent­ing skills and po­ten­tially al­ter home en­vir­on­ments re­flects this more hol­ist­ic ap­proach to im­prov­ing chil­dren’s op­por­tun­it­ies.

New In­vest­ments in Early In­ter­ven­tions

Over the past two dec­ades, Heck­man has de­veloped a case for in­vest­ing in early in­ter­ven­tions fo­cused on low-in­come chil­dren and their fam­il­ies — and he has called for “a ma­jor re­fo­cus of policy “¦ to cap­it­al­ize on know­ledge about the im­port­ance of the early years in cre­at­ing in­equal­ity and in pro­du­cing skills for the work­force.” His re­search has been hailed, par­tic­u­larly by Demo­crat­ic poli­cy­makers, in large part be­cause Heck­man makes the ar­gu­ment that money spent on early child­hood in­ter­ven­tion pro­duces much high­er eco­nom­ic re­turns than any later ef­forts in sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, job train­ing, and cer­tainly con­vict re­hab­il­it­a­tion.

In its push for uni­ver­sal pre-K, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has em­braced Heck­man’s re­search. Crit­ics, and even some sym­path­et­ic re­search­ers, still warn that early child­hood gains can dis­sip­ate un­less they are re­in­forced by sub­sequent in­ter­ven­tions. And con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans re­main leery of a ma­jor new fed­er­al ef­fort. But at a time when even Geor­gia and Ok­lahoma, two deep-red states, are fund­ing ex­pan­ded pre-K as a way of pre­vent­ing much lar­ger costs down the road, bol­ster­ing very young chil­dren might be one of the few policy ini­ti­at­ives with the po­ten­tial to break the en­dem­ic stan­doff between the parties. 

When Pres­id­ent John­son signed the bill au­thor­iz­ing Head Start back in 1965, he had some re­search to back up the idea of early child­hood in­ter­ven­tions — and a lot of hunches. Nearly half a cen­tury later, re­search­ers have the be­ne­fit of long-term stud­ies to give them more an­swers, al­though that hasn’t ended de­bates on the sub­ject.

It seems clear that the most ef­fect­ive ef­forts to help low-in­come chil­dren get an early start go bey­ond teach­ing num­bers and let­ters — they in­volve the fam­ily, com­munity, everything. Everything is ex­pens­ive. But the kind of class-based achieve­ment gap that led John­son to fight for Head Start in the first place may be a cost the U.S. can’t af­ford to pay as kids of col­or, many of them from fam­il­ies of mod­est means, be­come a ma­jor­ity of the fu­ture stu­dent pop­u­la­tion and work­force.

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