Head Start Works

Alaska Fact Sheet.pdfDoes Head Start work?

On its face, the logic of providing early education, particularly for disadvantaged children, seems obvious, not only for the benefit to the child, but to the schools that will be educating the child down the line.

As a federal program, its cost is relatively modest; at $7 billion it accounts for about 0.8% of the Health and Human Services Department’s total budget.

Last year, results from the most comprehensive study of Head Start were released. The Head Start Impact Study Third Grade Follow-up randomly selected children for participation in Head Start or for comparison and followed them through third grade. Many of the comparison children participated in other preschool programs, some of which may also have been subsidized, and few had no preschool experience at all.

There was disappointment in the early childhood world that the Impact Study did not show much difference at third grade between Head Start and comparison children, but many felt the outcome pointed to the variety of early learning options available to children who didn’t attend Head Start. We’ve come a long way since 1965.  Early learning is now found in numerous settings, funded through multiple public and private streams.

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The High Cost of Child Poverty

Over the years, I have seen a number of brain development experts show a slide of two brain scans depicting the difference between a normally developed infant and one deprived of stimulation and a loving relationship.

brainscanIn the well-developed brain on the left, rich areas of red and orange depicting high activity; on the right, a few lobes of orange in a sea of black empty space where there should be active tissue.

The deprived brain was that of a Romanian orphan in the 1990s. Rarely held or snuggled, much less removed from her crib, this poor child’s brain never had the kind of stimulation it required to grow appropriately.

I thought of this recently when I read a new report on poverty by Educational Testing Service that found the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty among the 35 richest nations. Only Romania has a greater proportion of its children in poverty than the U.S.

In the last ten years alone, there’s been a 35% increase in child poverty in the U.S., affecting more than one in five kids. The rate is even higher for Latino children (1 in 4) and African American children (nearly 1 in 3).

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A Roadmap to Cut Poverty

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual Kids Count Data Book and once again California ranks 41st nationally on child well-being. How is it that California, considered one of the top ten economies in the world, can’t make it out of the bottom ten states in the country when it comes to the well-being of our children?

CASEYThe data do show that improvements have been made in health and educational outcomes for children. But alarmingly, when it comes to poverty, children are doing worse in every category.

Just about one in four children in California now lives in poverty. That means a quarter of our children are likely to be too hungry to grow, too distracted by overcrowded housing to learn, or too stressed to be healthy. This is the legacy of the Great Recession that will affect an entire generation of Californians if we do not address it quickly and emphatically.

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