In the 1960s, the government started a number of schemes to benefit poverty stricken people. One of these projects was Head Start, aimed at children from low-income families. Project Head Start was initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, on the recommendations of a committee report. The committee had been initially set up to chalk out community programs to address the needs of pre-school children among low-income families. Head Start is focused on children between three and five years. The Head Start program had over 900,000 children enrolled with it in 2004 at a cost of $6.8 billion (US GAO, 2005). About 13% of the enrolled children were those having speech difficulties, mentally retarded or children with other disabilities. Having been around for over three decades, the impact of the program on the lives of the children has been immense.
The programs were also found to inculcate moral and personal values in the individual, like positive attitude and motivation; and was also found to be strongly associated with reduction in teenage pregnancy and higher employment rates. (Berrueta-Clement et al., 1984). Although Head Start contributed to the early development of children, it was also evident that American children were much behind their counterpart in many countries like Japan, in science and mathematics. It was also seen that this short coming remained with them even beyond their primary schooling, with many being unsuccessful or dropping out of science relevant courses. The low levels of mathematics and science success among the children was a big concern for the administrators, public and parents.
A 2003 HHS report on Head Start revealed that Head Start children are not sufficiently prepared for school, compared to an average American child. Although the difference between a Head Start Child and the typical American child is insignificant in terms of social skills and other main school readiness factors, Head Start children lagged behind in factors associated with future school success. The report highlighted that these children from low-income families performed much below than others in reading and mathematics, on entering school. In mathematics, it was observed that children entered with 21% and subsequently increased it by 2%, which was too below the national averages (USHHS, 2003). The report also suggested that better outcomes can be achieved with Head Start by identifying the skills and abilities required in each domain.
The Head Start on Science and Communication (HSSC) is a program for young children directed at strategic science learning. The program is a result of four years of research and aims to inculcate inquiry based learning on physical science, life and earth science among young children. The HSSC was originally formed to bring parents and teachers to promote immediate and future success in science. The program also intends to promote age associated abilities for science related observation, prediction, investigations and making conclusions. Here children observed problems, understood and related facts, sequenced or categorized information through collaborative learning, group working and interaction with teachers. Instead of the typical yes/no option, teachers began asking more open ended questions with various levels of difficulties. The positive outcomes of the program included positive changes in the teachers’ teaching strategies. A study of 85 students of the first grade who answered 58% of factual questions and 15% experimental questions correctly before the program scored 96% and 92% respectively, after the program. As they learn and understand science concepts, their ability to answer questions too increases along with their cognitive skill levels. The HSSC has been implemented using the Adaptive Learning Environment Model (ACEM), which attempts to unify exploratory and explicit learning to compliment individual abilities and short comings (Wang, 1992). The program has incorporated the recommendations of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which include providing suitable opportunities for children to carry out meaningful tasks which they can succeed most of the time. NAEYC also suggest sustaining of children’s initiative, active exploration and coordination with others by providing appropriate environment Classrooms should also serve as caring communities, guiding children to establish good relationships with children and grown ups. Research with Head Start program has provided evidence that a child’s academic achievement is substantially linked to parents’ involvement with their children’s education. The family mathematics and science program facilitates joint classes for both parents and children in science activities and mathematics problem solving (Klein, 2000). Such programs involving parents showed encouraging results in their child’s educational achievement.
The process of learning is more successful when children are fully involved with the subject or topic of their learning. This is all the more important when teaching science. Life sciences involving plants and animals; and non-living things are real and can be felt. Experiencing the reality through interaction, makes science not only more interesting, but also easier to understand. Mathematics on the other hand involves a bit more abstract level. Yet, the symbols, signs and figures associated with mathematics with which children work, are self-created reality. In their effort to learn science and mathematics, children proceed further into the subjects, than just at the surface or base encounter. They analyze and interpret the object of focus and attempt to understand ‘how it works’, ‘why its required’ etc. Thus the child begins to develop reasoning for the facts it sees or understands. It may be the development of a new concept, or altering a previously thought concept, or even rejecting an assumption held till then. The teacher who wants to interestingly engage children in learning science and mathematics must personally sense excitement in learning so as to share it with the children. The teacher should approach the topic of learning and the query asking children in a balanced and parallel manner. The teacher must be sensitive to the requirements of the children and help them to see relationships and understand explanations. For teachers to be proficient and confident in their teaching, it is essential that they understand the triple interactions involved in learning. The teacher must be conscious that while the child is interacting with him or her, the child is also simultaneously interacting with the focused subject. The focused subject or subject matter interacts with both the teacher and the child; while the teacher also interacts with the querying children and the focused subject.
It is important to know the development of a child’s understanding and ability to reason, with their growth. Such an understanding is absolutely necessary in developing appropriate contents. For instance in the grades K-4, a child associates a comparison, a description, or a manipulation for all objects, it sees around. Although the child doesn’t understand the science of motion while in this grade; activities like pulling, pushing, dropping of objects gives the child an idea of the cause of motion and its control. Similarly sound, heat, light, magnetism, electricity are broadly perceived through learning, observation and experimentation. However, the child would not be able to identify elements of temperature, magnetic forces, static electricity etc. In the grades 5 to 8, the concept of energy is developed through investigations into the properties of light, sound, electricity and magnetism. In these grades, there is a considerable shift towards quantitative aspects of subjects. In the 9 –12 grades, students are geared up completely to deal with motion, force, energy; being familiar with theoretical observations and laboratory investigations (NJSC). Here they understand the reasoning behind the laws of motion and why energy is conserved. They are also capable of dealing with technological designs and its problems, using the concepts and principles learnt.
A report by the National Research Council Committee in September 2006, on the state of K-8 science education, has determined that science instructions offered in schools today are outdated. These are predominantly based on research findings of about three to four decades early. The report offers groundwork for the next reforms and is based on the recent understandings of how children learn, and recommends a narrower and better focus on important areas of science. It seeks to improve professionalism among teachers and have each aspect of instruction and learning, better integrated with each other. The Council’s Committee on Science Learning, responsible for science learning in kindergarten to eighth grade had reviewed both, the reforms undertaken in science education in the last decade and the recent understandings of learning and cognitive science. The committee emphasized that young children are capable of intricate thinking and that each student develops an individual understanding of the nature around him. It also stated that the current debate on the importance of teaching content versus teaching process skills, should be put aside and both be replaced by interweaved aspects of science expertise. The committee has suggested that the curriculum, instruction and assessment should be properly integrated with the focus of fewer, central elements in each discipline, rather than surface level study of a wide topic. It points out that the current science education is based on relatively old assumptions. The current science education underestimates children’s ability of complex thinking and is more attributed to difficulty level in children rather than their ability. For instructions to be successful, teachers need to have a sound understanding of the subject, know how to teach it effectively and also be familiar with the recent research on student learning (AIP, 2006). Proper, effective instructions can clear misunderstandings and bring understanding closer to perfect. The instructions should include student encounters with science in a sequentially designed and strategic way. Students identified as proficient in science must be capable of explaining the scientific perception of the natural world. They need to be capable of introducing and analyzing scientific explanations, understand all aspects of scientific knowledge development, and participate in science-based exercises/discussions.
Research tells us that pre-school children are capable of reading and understanding math and science concepts to a higher level than previously expected. Also, if these children are not taught or learn these, they are not adequately prepared for school. Children from low-income families are already behind even as they enter their kindergarten. Under performing programs need to be identified and strengthened. Programs need to be evaluated and modified according to the requirement of our children’s needs, not merely to keep up ineffective programs. Good programs and its proper implementation are the foundations for successful school outcomes.
US Government Accountability Office. (2005) Head Start: Further development could allow results of new test to be used for Decision making. [Electronic Version]. Downloaded electronically on 25th October 2008 from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05343.pdf
USHHS (2003) Head Start children not adequately prepared for school, HHS report concludes. [Electronic Version]. Downloaded electronically on 25th October 2008 from
Klein E.R (2000) Language development and science enquiry: The Head Start on Science and Communication Program. Vol. 2 No. 2. [Electronic Version]. Downloaded electronically on 26th October 2008 from http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v2n2/klein.html
Wang, M. C. (1992). Adaptive education strategies: Building on diversity. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
New Jersey Science Curriculum (NJSC) Framework. The Framework: Science Standard 9 [Electronic Version] downloaded on 26th October 2008 from http://www.nj.gov/education/frameworks/science/chap8d.pdf
American Institute of Physics. (AIP, 2006) NRC Report Finds Much of Current K-8 Science Teaching Outdated. FYI Number 142: 27th October 2008 [Electronic Version] downloaded on 27th October 2008 from http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/142.html
Berrueta-Clement et al., (1984). Changed lives; The effects of the Perry Preschool Project on youths through age 19. Monographs on the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, No. 8, High/Scope Press, Ypsilanti.