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Head Start Works, But Needs More Funding and Better Teachers


September 13, 2002

Sept. 13, 2002 (Washington, D.C.) — Head Start produces substantial long-term educational benefits, but increased funding and higher standards can result in even greater gains for children in the future, according to a leading early education researcher. W. Steven Barnett, PhD, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, spoke today at a congressional Science and Public Policy briefing on the impact of Head Start. NIEER is a nonpartisan institute at Rutgers University, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The House of Representatives will be discussing Head Start funding this fall.

Barnett says Head Start, which provides education, health, nutrition, and social services to children and their families, is effective. Some critics have charged Head Start produces no lasting academic benefits for children. But Barnett says, “Head Start fade-out is a myth. Studies that measure school progress find lasting impacts on grade repetition, special education, and high school graduation.”

Barnett says while initial IQ gains produced by Head Start do fade-out gradually after the child leaves the program, this is true for all types of preschool programs that began after age three. Barnett also says achievement studies have systematically erred by comparing all children who went through Head Start with groups of students that don’t include children who’ve been held back or placed in special education.

Critics charge Head Start’s effects are smaller than model preschool programs that led to Head Start’s creation. But Head Start has never been funded anywhere near the levels of the model programs, and yet is asked to provide far more comprehensive services, according to Barnett. He says, “Inadequate funding hurts Head Start’s ability to hire and retain highly qualified staff and hurts staff morale. Both of these things are likely to reduce educational quality.”

A recent report from the National Research Council recommended that every preschool teacher have a four-year college degree with specialized education related to early childhood. Barnett says teacher education strongly predicts the quality of teaching, as does teacher compensation. Yet, only one in three Head Start teachers has a four-year college degree. Barnett says, “The chief obstacle to acquiring better teachers is teacher pay. The average Head Start teacher salary is only $21,000, less than the average secretary, and little more than half what the average kindergarten teacher earns. Research offers no hope that specialized training in teaching methods alone, no matter how “teacher-proof” the design, is a substitute for well-educated and reasonably compensated professional teachers.”

Barnett calculates paying Head Start teachers as much as teachers in the public schools would require an eventual increase in annual funding of only $1 billion. He says, “Paying teachers as professionals would do much to increase the effectiveness of Head Start and ensure that the children it serves will not be left behind.”

Today’s congressional briefing was sponsored by the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, and the Foundation for Child Development.

The National Institute for Early Education Research supports early childhood education initiatives by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. Its goal is to ensure every three-and four-year old in America gets a good education. The Institute offers independent research-based advice and technical assistance primarily to policy makers, journalists, researchers, and educators.

Barnett’s work includes research on the educational opportunities and experiences of young children in low-income urban areas, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and benefit-cost analysis of preschool programs and their long-term effects.

NIEER was established at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts.