Researchers at the Graduate School of Education have taken on a big assignment: Developing the first integrated curriculum for Project Head Start, a $6 billion federal program that helps prepare almost a million low-income children for school. 

The curriculum, which will be developed and tested over the next five years in partnership with researchers and preschool teachers, will weave together the teaching of basic reading and math skills with school and social-readiness skills.

Launched in 1965, “Head Start has never before benefited from an evidence-based, integrated curriculum,” says Dr. John Fantuzzo, a psychologist in the education school and principal investigator in the study. It has done well at “addressing children’s comprehensive needs and giving them a sense of what school is about, and we’re excited to add to that success by developing scientifically tested curricula that could help preschoolers get a leg up academically.”

Head Start is not a single program, however, but a set of diverse programs all over the country—in rural and urban areas, reservations, and migrant camps, Fantuzzo notes. “We’re not trying to develop one shoe that fits all children. But as we’re doing this inquiry we’re increasing the knowledge base that says what components are effective.”

Another challenge is combining these components in a way that they enhance each other rather than overwhelm the child. With $5.8 million in federal money, the researchers will test various levels of integration to see which produce the best outcomes. Parent and family involvement, for example, has always been an important part of Head Start, but an integrated curriculum would link their activities more closely with the skills and concepts that children are actually learning in the classroom to better reinforce them, Fantuzzo says. 

Since Head Start’s inception, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of reaching vulnerable children before they start school. Early-childhood education is also one of the focuses of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. For that reason, quality research is important, Fantuzzo says. “A lot of times public policy doesn’t wait around for the research.”

The collaborative spirit is one of the most exciting aspects of the project, he adds, noting that the problems faced by at-risk children are too big for the “pet idea” of one researcher to be sufficient. “I couldn’t emphasize enough the need for scholars to come together and share their ideas and also have the sensitivity to incorporate perspectives of the practitioners and the families who are the closest to the children.”

Researchers include Douglas Frye, associate professor and chair of the Psychology in Education Division; Dr. Vivian Gadsden, associate professor and director of Penn’s National Center on Fathers and Families; and Dr. Paul McDermott, GSE professor and an expert in statistics, assessment, and testing. Also participating is Dr. Dennis Culhane, professor of social welfare policy and psychology in the School of Social Work and director of Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Laboratory.


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