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January 25, 2010

The Lifeboat Problem

Lifeboat2smallImagine a life boat and 20 kids in the water. You are the teacher in the lifeboat trying to save the kids in the water. You know that 6 of the kids can swim and 8 of them can't. You jump in the water and start pulling kids to the lifeboat. Which kids do you save first? That is the choice kindergarten teachers in high-poverty schools face. They want to save all of them but, because of the dire circumstances, you have to decide on your priorities.

If I were teaching Kindergarten in a high-poverty school and had 6 students from Head Start who already knew many letters, who could get along with peers, and whose parents were supportive and participated in their child's education (a Head Start requirement) then I might focus all of my energies on the 8 kids in my class who didn't know any letters when they got to school, who were socially delayed, and whose parents were not supportive of their learning. It is a matter of priority. Just because a kid enters kindergarten ahead of their peers doesn't mean they have to leave ahead of their peers. The Head Start kids' instruction is sacrificed for the progress of the rest of the class.

The Head Start Impact Study final report released on January 13th found that there were few benefits by first grade from attending Head Start. This isn't really surprising to me. Many of the benefits of high-quality pre-k are "time release" benefits. They don't surface until they are necessary. The role of Head Start is to level the playing field and to me the report confirms this function, almost too well.

The study also had a finding that is very important to advocates of open access to preschool all over the country. The report states "60 percent of control group parents enrolled their children in some other type of preschool program in the first year." This suggests that access to preschool programs was a priority for most of the sample families. Parents want their children in center-based early childhood settings, whether they are Head Start or not. It is up to our states to make sure that these high-quality settings are accessible to all children who need them.

Garces, Thomas, & Currie have made the assertion that Head Start develops students overall human capital. Currie has also cited the myth of fade as an aspect of Head Start students being more likely to attend lower quality schools than those who do not. I have two suspicions that I believe will, in two years, contradict some of the recent criticism of Head Start brought on by this study.

By 3rd grade, the higher vocabulary scores of students with Head Start and pre-k experiences will affect the trajectory of reading ability and academic success as suggested by
Hart & Risley

The second point I believe will bear out is that students who were in the 3 year old program will be significantly less likely to be referred for special education services, a cost savings for federal, state and local education agencies that will outweigh the cost of providing the two years of Head Start.

My cards are on the table, lets see what happens.

Image" http://www.whitbyweather.com/web_images/lifeboat2small.jpg


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