Head Start

Not a small consideration:

One of the biggest surprises of Tuesday’s state of the union address was President Obama’s proposal for making pre-school available to all American children. His base is delighted: universal pre-school has been high on the liberal wish list for many decades. But the reality of deficits as far as the eye can see and the mediocre condition of American schools requires some hard-nosed questions about what the tens of billions required for universal pre-school programs will actually accomplish.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of universal pre-school. Pre-school, or nursery school as it used to be called, is now a necessity of middle class life, a way of gently introducing children to the discipline and structure of formal education, of teaching social skills, of expanding a child’s social network, not to mention of providing childcare for working parents. Offering those benefits to children whose parents cannot afford the often daunting tuition seems like a no-brainer for anyone committed to reducing poverty and inequality. After all, cognitive research supports common sense intuition that the early years are of vital importance in a child’s development. For many, high quality universal pre-school programs in places like France and Sweden have always served as a model of governmental commitment to equality and basic fairness.

But two words in particular should dampen some of this pre-school enthusiasm: Head Start.

Launched in the mid 1960′s as part of the War on Poverty, Head Start was based on precisely the idea that government schooling could compensate poor children for their disadvantage. It hasn’t worked out that way. More than a hundred and fifty billion dollars and almost 50 years later, the program is a dud. A report fromOctober 2012 is only the most recent of a long line of studies showing fleeting cognitive gains from Head Start. The rigorously-designed study adds that there is little difference in the domains of “social-emotional, health, and parenting practices” between 3rd graders who attended a Head Start program and those who did not.

The most severe critics object that Head Start has turned into nothing more than a massive jobs program for adults. That may be too cynical, but Head Start does provide a cautionary lesson for the president. It’s almost impossible to satisfactorily reform, not to mention undo, a large government program that employs tens of thousands of people, especially one promising to improve the lives of poor children….

The other reason for the mantra “pre-school works” is that it often does – for a year or two. Many programs, including some Head Start classes, do improve kids’ cognitive skills and school readiness. But by third grade, the positive effects fade away. The stark truth is that pre-school can’t “work “unless kindergarten, first and second grade and all of the other grades do. And so far they don’t.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Barlow

    It was a rigorous study in some ways, but it was a national study, and the US has some very regionally specific differences. The research center where I work has complete longitudinal data for kids in MS public schools and we found a real, lasting, positive impact for Head Start.

  • http://annsphillips.wordpress.com Ann Phillips

    We had universal preschool. Ask anyone who grew up in the 60s or before. It was called kindergarten and was open to all, though not required. They left the name in place but turned it into first grade. It’s still not legally required, but no one in their right minds would let their child skip straight to the second grade offered, but called first grade. The original purpose of kindergarten was exactly the kind of gentle introduction to school described. The emphasis was on social skills and reading and math readiness. It included art, play and rest time, all of which are nearly absent now as our 5 year olds are expected to sit still and do lots of reading and math.

  • TJJ

    I suppose 100 years from now babies will not go home after laborious and delivery, they will go straight to baby school, and then fiddler school, and so on, then parents can stay at their jobs, keep working, and children will learn to read and write and calculate even earlier, etc.

    Where does it end and why do we as a culture think this is so wonderful?

  • TJJ

    Wow, auto correct…..quit already!!!

    ….labor and delivery…

    …..toddler school……

  • Percival

    I thought fiddler school was good. A bunch of small kids with small violins using the Suzuki method to increase their IQ. Come to think of it, music is a human right! Universal fiddler education for all!

  • Annie

    I certainly understand the commenters’ remarks here noting the ridiculous way our society has imposed formal education on increasingly younger children. I think this has something to do with our competitive spirit and, as one suggested, the temptation to make things as convenient as possible for parents. (Having your kids under foot all day does make you less efficient, but seeing their parents in action is the way a 2, 3, 4 year old learns!) However, what are we as a society to do about/for children whose parents do not engage them in positive ways, who don’t read to them, who at best ignore them and sit them in front of a TV all day? Perhaps you don’t think the government has an obligation to these children, but the church most assuredly does. If the President’s solution of universal preschool is not the answer, what is our suggestion for extending ourselves to children in need of adult care and attention? If no one intervenes, it is clear what the outcome will be: more situations like those played out every day in the south side of Chicago.

  • Tami M

    Is there any ill that good education and living-wage jobs can’t cure?

    It would seem that these two things are also things that just can’t happen in this country. Our educational system is eroding to the point that we’re creating a massive cast for the movie “Idiocracy.” And jobs? Let’s just say that if we had a class in school somewhere teaching kids to ask “Do you want fries with that?” we’ll be preparing them for the kind of job they can hope to get once they leave school.

    Perhaps Head Start isn’t the answer. Or maybe it is, we just don’t realize how deep the problems of poverty go and how varied the needs are.

  • Myron Williams

    and what is the role of parents in the education their children receive. if the effects of Head Start are gone could it have anything to do with the lack of parental support when the child enters public school?

    apparently we have abdicated the role of educating children to school teachers, then pay them next to nothing and wonder why the good ones leave, while in the meantime mom and dad complain about the quality of education. sounds sort of like what parents do with Sunday School, youth groups, expecting these to care for spiritual formation while doing nothing to support spiritual formation at home.

    just saying.

  • http://masthewitt.net Paul Mast Hewitt

    I read through the study and found that there are real advances made by the children in Head Start. Those children, compared to the control group, entered Kindergarten more ready for the academic challenges now expected of Kindergarten children. This was true even though a large number of the control group enrolled in some kind of preschool. Still, as you point out, these advantages are mostly lost by the end of 2nd grade. Your conclusion is that Head Start was a waste of money. I would offer two different lessons.
    1. There were enough children who were eligible for Head Start, but were not admitted to have a significant “Control Group.” Those children entered Kindergarten disadvantaged in comparison to the Head Start children, and presumably in comparison to their middle class peers. Knowing that teachers tend to teach to the “lowest common denominator,” it should not surprise us that slowly the advantages of Head Start disappear after a few years. What if all the children entered Kindergarten with those same advantages. Where would they all be at the end of 2nd grade if the “lowest common denominator” were raised.
    2. What of this tendency to teach to the lowest common denominator? Head Start teachers are taught to “individualize,” to provide differentiated “scaffolding” for each child at the level that child is learning so he/she can move to the next level. What if elementary school teachers were taught to do the same. I know many teachers do that, but it is not institutionalized like it is for Head Start teachers.

    Perhaps we are addressing our concern at the wrong institutions.


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