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Preschool        < Previous        Next >



Head Start: Why It Doesn't Work


Q. Isn't Head Start a really good preschool program for poor kids?


Unfortunately, no. It often costs $10,000 per child per year, but its benefits vanish or wash out by the time the child enters second or third grade, research shows.


Evidence shows that the billions we've spent on Head Start, the preschool program for disadvantaged children, doesn't help bridge the school achievement gap between them and middle-class kids. It also doesn't reduce future dropout and crime rates to any degree. But it's not because the socioeconomic problems of these kids are so difficult, nothing would work. It's because Head Start doesn't stick to preparing the children for academic success. Instead, it veers off into social engineering to a large extent.


Educators often use poor children's meager home circumstances as an excuse for the achievement gap. But the truth is, there is less poverty today than in generations past, more home ownership, more employment and more parental educational attainment. While there are also more broken families and more drug use today, both key factors, the focus should be squarely on the Head Start philosophy and methods, not blaming the children and families it's supposed to be helping.


We've known for decades that Head Start does not, as promised, raise IQ and does not, as designed, improve children's readiness for reading and math instruction once they start school. It stings, since the average cost of a year in Head Start exceeds the average cost per pupil in a K-12 public school.


The reason: Head Start all over the land has wandered into social engineering programs such as "Anti-Bias Curriculum" and radical environmentalism instead of sticking to the fundamentals of instilling the skills of literacy and numeracy.


It's also because there is no accountability - no measurement of what the children learn while in Head Start. That's because there is no standard curriculum nationwide - not that anyone wants nationalization of the sandbox set. But the range of quality is vast, and because Head Starts get their money and direction straight from the federal government, there is no local control or balance of power. Simple testing requirements would go a long way: "Do you read words from left to right, or from right to left?" and "How many blocks are on the rug? If I take one away, how many are left?"


The other reason Head Start has failed is that the program is rooted in President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" philosophy from the 1960s, where the disadvantaged are equipped to help themselves. Head Start uses parents as employees and volunteers, but spends so much time training them to provide emotional stability in the home, nutritious meals and how to access social services that academics fall by the wayside.


Head Start's role model should be Abraham Lincoln: an impoverished, neglected child of a single father who focused on academics, not his socioeconomic woes. He put effort, not expense, into building himself into one of the greatest thinkers of world history. His equipment? Some chalk, a slate, and a few borrowed books . . . more powerful than a boatload of expensive government social services.


Homework: Here's a book that retails for $15, and maybe cheaper online or used. It would go a long way toward fulfilling what a $10,000 year in Head Start might do for a child: Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society by William Crain.


By Susan Darst Williams Preschool 07 2008


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