Does Head Start Work? Wrong Question

It’s a tired debate born of selective reading and contrarian sound bites: Does Head Start work?

The research shows that it clearly does.  Decades of studies, including the most recent Head Start Impact Study, have found that at the end of Head Start, prior to kindergarten, the program shows wide-ranging positive effects on children and families from language and pre-reading abilities to parenting skills.  And even though Head Start dates back to 1965, the latest research has proven its creators right about many basic principles.

Since its inception, Head Start’s core has been a comprehensive approach to high-quality early education and a focus on the whole child—recognizing the importance of social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Head Start children receive medical and developmental screenings and subsequent treatment for identified concerns. They receive regular medical and dental care. And their families receive parenting education, health education and support services connecting them to education and jobs. Current research tells us that this full array of services is what early education programs should offer to have a positive effect on vulnerable children.

Whether Head Start works isn’t close to the right question. Instead, we should ask why only a fraction of eligible children are being served.

But it’s not just the comprehensive approach that makes Head Start a leader.  Head Start’s rigorous quality standards and monitoring processes, commitment to serving children with disabilities, and leadership in serving children from diverse backgrounds all make it a model of a high-quality program and a foundational component of our early learning system.

Head Start’s history of evaluation, innovation, and self-improvement is just as extraordinary. It has been the subject of intensive research for five decades and much of what has been learned has been incorporated into the program through quality improvement.

Head Start has evolved over time in various ways to meet families’ needs for full-day or year-round programs or to respond to local community needs with innovative models. Program standards, monitoring, and professional development have all been revised based on research and evaluation. Most notably, the 2007 Congressional reauthorization of Head Start increased the focus on school readiness for children and established higher educational requirements for teachers. New assessment procedures require a review of teacher-child interactions, a critical component of any early education experience.

Drawing on this history, researchers have taken a careful look at what about Head Start works and what can be improved based on the findings of the recent national impact study and the broader Head Start research.

So why is there any debate at all regarding the effectiveness of Head Start?

The answer is simple—the impact study has been selectively mined for talking points.  The study found that right after leaving Head Start, children did better than their peers. It also found cognitive gains disappeared during the early elementary years. There are many possible reasons, including uneven quality in Head Start programs, uneven quality in elementary schools that poor children enter after Head Start, and the need for higher-intensity interventions than the 9-month Head Start program tested in the study. There is also much more to learn about how to sustain immediate gains for poor children over time.

Importantly, the study results do not necessarily mean that children won’t benefit later from Head Start. A robust body of research finds that while children in Head Start and other high-quality early education programs may lose immediate gains, they still experience improved outcomes later in life.  This is important:  the large payoffs to early education that researchers have found for high-quality programs in the form of increased education, employment, and earnings can happen even when there is no immediate evidence that children are doing better in school. Here too, we have more to learn.

As we deepen our understanding of the complexities of high-quality early education and its impacts, Head Start should continue its legacy of continuous quality improvement to respond to the needs of poor children. As with any program intended to advance outcomes for our children, we should learn and adapt as new research expands our knowledge base. But labeling the intervention a failure based on one study is neither sensible nor advantageous to preparing poor children for school, a goal that benefits everyone in the country.

But the biggest problem with the simplistic talking points framing the Head Start debate isn’t a selective reading of the research.  It is the distraction from what matters most:  the persistence of child poverty, which affects a quarter of our youngest children. The immediate impacts of Head Start are clear. We shouldn’t ignore or reject decades of reputable research.  Whether Head Start works isn’t close to the right question.  Instead, we should ask why only a fraction of eligible children are being served. Why, when we know what works, can we not make a significant investment to put a generation of young children in poverty on a better and brighter path?

It is our public will that we must question.




Reinvesting in Children 60 Years After Brown

On May 17, we celebrated the anniversary of a turning point in American education – a commemoration of the end – or so we hoped – of “separate but equal.” But even 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, disparities in educational opportunities throughout our country continue to result in vast economic inequalities.

On nearly every indicator that we use in the United States to measure progress, people of color are falling further behind. And it starts early.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children,” provides a national and state scorecard for how we are providing opportunities for children of color, using 12 indicators, such as percentage of children enrolled in preschool, high-schoolers who graduate on time, and number of children who live in low-poverty areas. There isn’t one minority group that’s meeting all of these benchmarks, and even middle-class families of color have a very tenuous hold on their economic status.

In addition, the recent data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection show that we are exacerbating these disparities by essentially sending our children of color to schools that are not providing them with a high-quality education. For many of our children, schools become a pipeline into the criminal justice system. According to the data, Black students are suspended at much higher rates than White students, and the problem has become so pervasive and insidious that it extends to preschool. Despite representing just 18 percent of preschool children, Black children make up nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions in preschool.

This school-to-prison pipeline – one in which African Americans and Latinos are grossly over-represented – is in stark contrast to their under-representation in the higher education system, where the non-Hispanic White population is well ahead of other groups in ultimately attaining a college degree or more.

The economic inequalities we see resulting from these educational inequalities are frightening. The unemployment data released earlier this month by the Department of Labor – revealing continued job growth but stagnant wages – still show that Black and Brown people are having the hardest time riding out this lengthy economic recovery. The official unemployment rate for African Americans is more than double the unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites. The rate for Hispanics is lagging behind, too.

When the numbers of under-employed and discouraged workers are factored in, the crisis is even more severe for workers from every background.

With the foreclosure crisis, the financial crash, and the great recession, the inequalities of wealth have actually increased. As the Urban Institute reports, Non-Hispanic White families before the recession had about four times the wealth as non-White families, a figure that jumped to six times by 2010. Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth – and Black families lost 31 percent of theirs – between 2007 and 2010. By contrast, White families lost just 11 percent of their wealth over the same period.

This broadening racial wealth gap is scary, as is the school-to-prison pipeline, and it won’t be solved overnight. But we can start by reinvesting in our nation’s children, who all deserve equal access to a quality education – one that doesn’t leave their economic future imperiled. The federal government has a number of options that it can pursue to address this crisis, including taking on a more robust role in guaranteeing the right to education; greater and more equitable investment of resources in the public school system; and tougher enforcement of existing civil rights laws. Taken together, such actions would do much to improve the lives of our children, both now and in the future.

Sixty years after Brown, it’s the least we can do.




‘Ain’t Got No Wiggle Room’

Poverty is everywhere. More than one in three Americans—106 million people—live below or perilously close to the federal poverty line. If you pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the radio or flip on the television, there are countless stories about poverty and income inequality. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are staking their claims to a national anti-poverty agenda. Republican presidential hopefuls like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have suddenly taken up the issue. And six long years after the Great Recession, Democrats have finally embraced raising the minimum wage. The conversation about poverty is pervasive.

Yet, poverty is nowhere. The men, women and children who are part of the 106 million striving and struggling Americans are invisible and voiceless. They are invisible because the debate about poverty is swirling around them but does not actually include them. They are invisible because they are not recognized as people but rather as a condition or a problem. They are blamed rather than empowered. They are voiceless because they are locked out of the corridors of power where conversations about poverty are happening. At best, their stories serve as useful anecdotes that add color to the harrowing statistics.

It’s past time for people who are poor to tell their own stories so that we can then have a real conversation about what actually contributes to economic success or failure in America.

Pina Orsillo Belgrano has one of these low wage jobs that keeps her struggling. Pina, 58, is a single mother in Seattle who worked as a restaurateur, travel agent and a real estate agent in 2008 until the economy tanked and she lost those jobs. The only job Pina could find was a $12 an hour job in the hotel industry. Pina does not earn enough money to protect her home from being foreclosed.

Pina is unfortunately among the millions of people living in a society where the economy no longer allows them to afford the basics. We have the answers to solve these problems but there is a deep misalignment of power in our society that is preventing us from seeing it and getting there. That must be our north star; building power among people who don’t have it.

And that’s why the Center for Community Change Action (CCCA) is rooting our economic justice campaign in conversations with people who are living on the brink so we can hear how they define their situation and how we can make our economy fairer for everyone.

There are positive signs.  The WASH New York campaign clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of building a movement. After more than a decade of grassroots organizing, the New York carwash campaign helped carwash workers, who are paid less than minimum wage with no additional pay for overtime, fight their way out of poverty. These workers, with the strong support of community organizations, joined together to demand better pay and working conditions.

No one thought they had a chance. The owners are too big, too spread out, and there are too many of them, the workers were told.

These “carwasheros” didn’t let the naysayers stand in their way. Because of their efforts, they now have higher wages, increased job security, posted job schedules and paid leave. They built a movement and they won.

Luis Rosales, who worked at one of the big car washes in Queens for more than five years said, “This is going to be a great change for our car wash. More importantly, we were able to show other workers that it makes sense to fight and win what seemed impossible.”

And now that the city of Seattle has a compromise deal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the nation, people like Pina will earn more. With the extra money, Pina will be able to meet the income requirements to receive a loan modification so she can stay in her home.

CCCA is working with local partner organizations to raise the quality of jobs (including wages, benefits, and working conditions); ensure that low-income workers and job seekers have a fair shot at those jobs; and reduce barriers to employment that currently deny opportunities for people who have been incarcerated.

Sounds too lofty? Look at what people in America have accomplished when they banded together: equal rights for women, civil rights, child labor laws, voting rights.

In Youngstown, Ohio—a city that was hard hit by the recession and has been battling to come back ever since—I heard one of the best summaries of why we need this movement for good jobs right now. An African American man, Willis, said, “That’s poverty to me…where you ain’t got no wiggle room to enjoy life.”

The rich shouldn’t be the only ones with wiggle room. That’s why we’re building a movement with Willis, with Luis, with Pina. This is the only way we will create an economy that is just and fair for all Americans—especially for those who are paid less than what it takes to get by. And it’s the only way poverty will truly be nowhere.



First Person

A Parent’s Income Should Not Determine a Child’s Future

Childcare is one of the most important issues facing parents today. I know the struggles to find affordable, quality childcare firsthand. I am the mother of two beautiful children, Asyiah, age 6, and Tasir, age 5. My children are amazing, and, just like any other parent, I want to be able to give them the best opportunities in life. I know that for them to succeed, education is key. I have worked hard and tried my best to give them their best chance of success. Despite my efforts, the sheer cost of care for my son—care that would prepare him for school—has become unaffordable.

Until recently, my son attended a childcare program that he and I loved.  He was given instruction and pushed to learn more.  He attended the same program his sister did and has been there since shortly after birth.  Being at the same center gave my son a sense of stability and security that allowed him to excel.  I am a proud mother and I love to talk about how smart my kids are.  I believe that is partly a result of the quality of the care and instruction they have received starting at an early age.

Unfortunately, due to financial reasons, Tasir had to leave his childcare center at the end of the fall.  I lost my job and had to rely on cash assistance to make ends meet but I lost my subsidy that helped to pay for childcare.  It broke my heart to have to move my son from the care he loved and relied on simply because I could not afford it.  Losing my job and then my subsidy not only cost me but it has cost my son.

The loss of the childcare subsidy is not only a snowball effect from a lost job, but it is also an obstacle to getting any other job.

I have seen the benefits of high quality childcare in the education of my daughter.  Asyiah is a smart girl. She wants to learn and do well at school.  I believe this is a result of the instruction and stable care she received in the first years of life.  She has a strong foundation to build upon.

Since losing our childcare subsidy, my son, Tasir, has had nowhere to go. For four months I have been piecing together care with a network of relatives and neighbors while I looked for work.  I know I am lucky to have people to care for my son – otherwise I have no idea how I would be able to find work again.  The loss of the childcare subsidy is not only a snowball effect from a lost job, but it is also an obstacle to getting any other job.  Without care for my son how am I able to find a new job?  It is a vicious cycle that too many families are stuck in.

While I am grateful that Tasir is safe and fed with my relatives and friends, this is not the stable care he was accustomed to and he’s not learning anything.  At his old childcare center, Tasir engaged with children his age and learned new things each day.  Now I am just focused on making sure he is safe.  I want him to excel but right now our situation is not giving him any tools to help him prepare for school next year.   My son cannot redo these last few months. They will always be a time of lost potential.

I know the importance of early education.  I did not benefit from such programs and I do not want my kids to ever fall behind, or feel left behind.  No child should miss the opportunity to learn because his or her parents lack the money to afford it.  My daughter or son could be a doctor, lawyer, or even the next president of the United States, but without education, without a strong foundation, I fear they will not get there.  That my struggles could impact my children’s future keeps me up at night.

Today, I am happy to say that I have a new job.  Ironically I am now working at a childcare center.  With my new job I am hopeful that I will be able to get my subsidy back and be able to afford care for my son.  But there is no guarantee that I can get my son back in the same program, meaning this disruption in his life might be permanent.

No child should be prevented from reaching his or her potential because the caregiver lacks the funding.  I hope that by sharing my story, I can show the need for high-quality, affordable childcare for all families. Asyiah, Tasir and all children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential.





Poverty in America: Telling the Story

It was one of those arresting moments that transfixed the room: Amy, a military veteran and divorced mother, stood up at the mic and choked back tears as she told her story. She had gone to school to become an elementary school teacher, but wasn’t able to find full time work. With two kids to support, she was earning just $15,184 a year, far below the poverty line for her family. But she was one of the lucky ones for whom there was a lifeline: after obtaining Medicaid and Section 8 housing, Amy was admitted into a program at her local community action agency in her home state of Wisconsin that helped cover the costs of returning to school.  Amy is now a reading specialist with a full time stable job and benefits and owns her own home.

The people listening to Amy’s story were journalists. They were part of an unusual event organized by NBC News, my former employer, that brought journalists and anti-poverty advocates together to do something they don’t do very often: talk to one another. Inspired by open-mic poetry slams, this was called a “poverty pitch slam.”  The pitch slam was part of the NBC News “In Plain Sight: Poverty in America” project, a special reporting initiative supported by the Ford Foundation, which I launched and ran in 2013 (the project, which recently won a George Foster Peabody award, is now in its second year, and – full disclosure – I have transitioned to a new job as program officer in the Ford Foundation’s Media & Justice initiative).

Amy was one of a dozen people who had five minutes or less to pitch their stories to the panel of journalists from around the nation, including reporters and editors from big platforms like USA Today and NBC News, as well as smaller outlets like public radio stations and the Springfield News-Leader in the Ozarks (whose Every Child project has been brilliant and powerful).

The pitch slam coincided with the 50th anniversary of the launch of President Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which generated a flurry of big-media press coverage of poverty, an issue, as Dan Froomkin pointed out last year in an essay for Nieman Reports, that the “mainstream” media tend to mostly ignore.  (A finding corroborated by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), in a new study of the three major network evening newscasts set to be released next month.)  On the January anniversary of LBJ’s speech, however, the Washington Post, for example, presented everything we presumably need to know about the war on poverty, and The New York Times judged the war on poverty a “mixed bag.”  Most of the coverage binge, as FAIR’s radio program, “Counterspin,” pointed out, focused on either methodology – how we count poverty and whether it has gone up or down over the last half-century – or on the deep political and philosophical divide that exists over how to attack poverty in this country. What it didn’t really focus on was the people, like Amy, who can tell the very real stories of what it is like to be poor, and to want to be not-poor, and how hard it is in America 50 years after LBJ’s speech to do what he pledged: to replace despair with opportunity.

But these are the stories that are out there to be told, begging to be told, and I am here to tell you that, contrary to the beliefs and fears of editors and executive producers, these are deeply personal stories that, when told, do captivate the audience of readers, listeners, and viewers.

In the first year of the NBC News In Plain Sight project, the coverage (most of it online) included stories about life on minimum wage, fast food worker strikes, hunger, urban and suburban poverty, childhood asthma in poor urban areas, homeless veterans, the “unbanked,” threats to food stamps, criminal debt, transportation for low-income workers, gays and poverty, the dental crisis for the poor, putting off parenthood for financial reasons, unemployed older workers, the disappearance of “the American dream” – and more – and viewers did not turn the channel or click away from the 100+ stories we presented. In fact, the sharing of stories via social media was robust.

So here are a few more story ideas that I didn’t get around to, but I hope somebody else will. (As Henny Youngman might have said had he been a journalist, take my story ideas … please!)

If you’re so poor…: When many Americans see food stamp recipients who are obese, or struggling families with flat-screen televisions, they wonder how this can happen; same thing when they see a poor kid in an expensive pair of sneakers. Brian Charles, a reporter on the poverty beat in Connecticut, talks about “death by a thousand ‘no’s’.” As he explains it, what people don’t see when they see that kid in the Nikes is that the kid’s mom may have said no so many times that finally, when the kid wanted those sneakers, for once, that thousandth time, she said yes. Tell the story of those moms, and those kids. Explain how flat-screens are cheap but good schools and real opportunity are not. Explain the link between scarcity and obesity. And tell the stories through the experience of the real experts, the people who live them, by connecting with organizations like Witnesses to Hunger.

Welfare-to-work: has it worked? It’s been nearly 20 years since President Clinton enacted “welfare reform” into law.  The new law definitely did end “welfare as we know it,” but did it come through on its promise to move millions of poor Americans to work that leads to good jobs? What is the truth about TANF? There’s some great policy work on this question, but let’s not forget about the human stories – the “success stories” and the failures.

Solutions: Amy’s story is a story about programs that worked to lift her out of poverty. There are other stories like that out there, waiting to be told, and to be appreciated by an audience that wants more than doom and gloom. The Solutions Journalism Network has a lot of really smart stuff to say about how to do this kind of solutions-oriented reporting, and the TalkPoverty story bank is a great resource for people who, like Amy, are willing and ready to tell their personal stories.

I know the people who are launching well—Greg Kaufmann, from his work as a fellow poverty reporter when he was at The Nation, and the folks at the Center for American Progress through their ongoing poverty work.  They are going to bring unique voices to this blog—from people doing cutting-edge work as researchers, advocates, and activists in the fight against poverty, to the people living in poverty themselves.

I hope reporters will keep up with this blog to discover story ideas and people they should talk to in covering poverty.  There are way too many stories that still need to be told.  It would be great if we could get to a point where poverty reporters had to worry about being scooped.  We’re not there yet.