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Head Start: The 'Entitlement' Mentality


Q. With all-day kindergarten, school-based preschool, on-site before- and after-school day-care, free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, year-round school calendars, increasing numbers of kids put on drugs like Ritalin, classes on homosexuality and AIDS education, more and more school clinics opening up to dispense birth-control to teenagers and so forth, schools don't seem like schools any more. They are becoming more like social-service centers than places where children can go for academic knowledge. How did all this get started?


Look no farther than Head Start, the 40-year-old, $7 billion experiment in government-provided early childhood education. Everyone agrees that in most places, it's a flop. But it continues to get more and more funding anyway, and is the model for a number of educational entitlements that are expanding at breakneck speed.


Why? Because low-income parents like the free child care, and the growing army of early childhood workers likes the jobs. The model has spread into almost every conceivable other service or function affecting children and youth. Conservatives call Head Start's lobby a "vast parasitic constituency." Taxpayers and voters may not like the waste of money, but so far, they've been outshouted and outmaneuvered.


As states move toward more and more government-provided preschool and child care programming, expanded school hours like all-day kindergarten and expanded school services such as in-school health services, the people who make public policy need to take a close look at the study released this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Head Start Impact Study: First Year Findings."


Congress ordered this study of 5,000 Head Start kids to measure the program's effectiveness. Conclusions: Head Start had a small to modest impact on preschoolers' ability to identify letters, draw and name colors, but no effect on their early math skills or oral comprehension. It did inspire slightly more positive parental behavior, such as reading to children and doing "cultural enrichment" activities as a family, but had no effect in helping parents make their homes safer or choosing more effective disciplinary practices.

    Regarding mood and behavior problems, such as aggressiveness, depression and hyperactivity, Head Start reduced some of these problems in 3-year-olds but not in 4-year-olds.

     In terms of its overall impact on children's health, Head Start affected only 3-year-olds. Head Start was linked to more dental care for children, but not more health insurance. While access to free health care improved, the children's actual health did not.

    The most important finding, though, is that children leaving Head Start continue to fall significantly behind national learning achievement norms, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars.


Homework: See the study at:


By Susan Darst Williams Preschool 06 2008


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