26 May 2009

Even Start: What Happens When A Promising Early Childhood Education Model Fails to Improve Early Childhood Educational Outcomes?

Advocates and scholars have long argued that children exposed to early pre-literacy activities – particularly low income and minority children – do better when they reach kindergarten (Brooks-Gunn and Markman, 2005; MacInnes, 2009). It makes sense to us that this would be the case: After all, 95% of a child’s brain development occurs before she ever enters kindergarten. Smart investments during the first years of life can help to build a strong foundation of early brain development that will put a child on a trajectory to success in school and life.

The Even Start Program, which was initiated in 1989, is designed to improve children’s school readiness and well-being by combining “early childhood education, basic adult education, and parenting skills education into a unified family literacy program” (McCallion, 2006). The logic behind the Even Start program is sound. Even Start is geared toward families headed by parents who lack high school diplomas and who live below the poverty line, where children are at-risk for school failure and drop-out. The objectives of the program align with recent scientific research, which shows that infants’ and toddlers’ brains develop through interaction with their caregivers and their daily experiences (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). The research also demonstrates that the quality of a child’s linguistic development also reflects the amount and quality of language they hear at home (Brooks-Gunn and Markham, 2005 and Hart and Risley, 1995).

Why, then, did the Administration announce plans to eliminate funding for the program by 2010? According to the White House, evaluations of the program suggest that it has failed to live up to expectations. Families in the program, for example, fared no better than comparable families not in the program on 38 out of 41 key outcomes (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2009).

Administration officials argue that even though they agree with the premise of Even Start, multiple federal evaluations of the program are persuasive in arguing that the program is not achieving its desired outcomes. Even a 2008 overhaul of the program, which implemented a new curriculum and increased the amount of time that parents spent on pre-literacy activities with their children, failed to translate into improved literacy skills for children as they entered kindergarten (Judkins et al. 2008).

While the Obama Administration is devoted to early childhood education, the proposed elimination of Even Start makes it clear that they are equally committed to investing where the data proves that programs work.


Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne and Lisa B. Markman. (2005). “The Contribution of Parenting to Ethnic and Racial Gaps in School Readiness,” Future of Children, 15.1: 139-168.

Hart, Betty and Todd Risley. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Judkins, David R., Robert G. St. Pierre, Babette Gutmann, Barbara D. Goodson, Adrienne Von Glatz, Jennifer Hamilton, Ann Webber, Patricia Troppe and Tracy Rimdzius. (September 2008). A Study of Classroom Literacy Interventions and Outcomes in Even Start. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Klein, Alyson. (20th May 2009). “Advocates Fear for Imperiled Education Programs,” Education Week. Accessed May 21, 2009 <http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/33spending.h28.html?tkn=TNZFrNLngstcDLY0zQQ3tt2FLpgQXTxJD4Wc>

McCallion, Gail. (17th January 2006). Even Start: Funding Controversy. Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress. Accessed May 21, 2009. <>

MacInness, Gordon. (18th May 2009). “Preschool and Early Reading: How Obama Can Learn From New Jersey’s Expensive Effort to Narrow the Achievement Gap,” Education Week. Accessed May 21, 2009 <http://www.edweek.org/login.html?source=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/32macinnes.h28.html&destination=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/32macinnes.h28.html&levelId=2100>

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (Summer 2004). Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. Working Paper #1, Author.

Office of the Press Secretary. (6 May 2009). Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials To Discuss Terminations, Reductions and Savings in the 2010 Budget. Accessed May 21, 2009 <>

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