Anniversaries have a way of prompting us to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. Thirty-five years ago this summer, the first group of children graduated from the newly adopted Head Start program. At this point in time, should we look forward to another 35 years of Head Start or, instead, reconsider the wisdom of this longtime program?
President Lyndon Johnson told audiences, “Children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators…. We set out to make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives.” With seven major objectives—improve the child’s physical health, help the child’s emotional and social development, improve the child’s mental processes, establish expectations of success, increase the child’s ability to relate positively to family, develop in the child and his family a responsible attitude toward society, and increase the sense of dignity and self-worth of the child and his family—Head Start raised a high bar that, in retrospect, doomed it to failure before it even began.
Clearly Head Start has not stopped poverty in its tracks. Not surprisingly, the program’s goals have become less ambitious over time. Head Start now has the overall goal of “increasing the school readiness of young children in low-income families,” according to the Head Start bureau. Yet studies show that Head Start has not been able to meet even this boiled-down expectation.
In 1985 the Department of Health and Human Services undertook the first meta-analysis of Head Start research and shook the establishment with its dire findings: “In the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start.” In other words, Head Start was a false start—the net gain to children was zero.
But the establishment has clung to the study’s remnants: although gains were not maintained over time, some children had experienced short-term boosts. This, they argued, was Head Start’s job. If schools couldn’t maintain gains, that reflected a problem with the schools, not the program. That certainly sounds reasonable. But, it’s also reasonable for people to question Head Start’s utility. If students test the same with or without Head Start after a year or two, what’s the point of sending them through the program in the first place?
The most recent and thorough analysis of Head Start was conducted by the non-partisan General Accounting Office in 1997. After reviewing more than 600 citations, manuscripts, and studies, GAO concluded, “The body of research on current Head Start is insufficient to draw conclusions about the impact of the national program.”
In a sense, the GAO is right: sloppy study designs and amateur methodological errors so riddle the literature that any claims about the success or failure of the program are not convincing. Given that, one might suggest that more research is needed before giving up on the program. On the other hand, one might also look for guidance from other programs that bear a striking resemblance to Head Start. On this, findings are conclusive: early intervention programs can boost children’s test scores, but those gains wash out within a few years of exiting the programs.
Despite evidence that preschool programs do little for children, both presidential contenders are reluctant to let go of Head Start. Instead, George W. Bush supports changing Head Start into an early reading and numeracy program, and Al Gore suggests pouring an additional $1 billion into the program. Both ideas are senseless: thirty-five years, $44 billion, and 17 million children have passed through the Head Start gates since 1965. By any reasonable standard, that’s more than enough time and resources to create a successful program, if that were possible.
To make matters worse, it seems that politicians have learned little from experience with Head Start and a host of other early interventions. The hottest issue bubbling up is “universal preschool.” As Vice President Al Gore put it in his nomination acceptance speech, “This nation was a pioneer of universal public education. Now, let’s set a specific new goal for the first decade of the 21st century: high-quality, universal pre-school, available to every child in every family, all across this nation.” In other words, Gore wants government schools entrusted with educating every 3- and 4-year-old in the country.
Gore clings to the notion that preschool improves children’s early school performance which, in turn, improves later school performance. “Quality preschool can lead to higher IQs, higher reading and achievement levels, higher graduation rates and greater success in the workplace,” says Gore, echoing President Johnson’s early optimism. Of course the difference today is: we know better.
Consider the views of child-development scholar Edward Zigler, a founder of Head Start. As far back as 1987, when educators were debating the merits of universal preschool, he warned, “This is not the first time universal preschool education has been proposed…[In the past], as now, the arguments in favor of preschool education were that it would reduce school failure, lower dropout rates, increase test scores, and produce a generation of more competent high school graduates….Preschool education will achieve none of these results.”
What Zigler recognized is that a child’s academic and personal growth turn on a lot more than preschool. Family, natural abilities, neighborhood, and life experiences easily outweigh the influence of preschool. Preschools may teach children how to count, follow directions, and get along; Zigler himself favors universal preschool as a means to achieve school readiness. But preschool alone, like Head Start alone, confers no lasting advantage. To put all children on an equal footing would require genetic engineering, surrogate parents, and for many kids, home away from home.
Underlying moves for more government preschool programs is the mistaken idea that today’s preschoolers aren’t prepared for kindergarten. The quiet truth is that 70 percent of preschool-aged children already attend preschools, and the gap in participation rates between preschoolers from high- and low-income families has narrowed from 28 percentage points to just 13 points. And, call it old-fashioned, but some parents still prefer to care for their preschoolers at home.
Whether in preschools or with parents, a recent study of children entering kindergarten by the Department of Education found that kids are in top shape on factors kindergarten teachers say are the most important for school readiness—physical health, enthusiasm, and curiosity. In terms of concrete reading and math skills, nearly all, 94 percent, are proficient at recognizing numbers, shapes and counting to 10, and two in three know their ABCs.
It’s also in the early years when American students are most competitive internationally. Consider France, England, Denmark, Spain and Belgium where more than 90 percent of 4-year-olds attend public preschools. International tests show that by age 9, when the benefits of preschool should be most apparent, American children outscore nearly all of their universally preschooled peers on tests of reading, math, and science.
While American children start school better prepared than ever, the overall performance of older students continues to decline. Tests show that by eighth grade, Americans start sliding down the international curve. By 12th grade, they hit bottom. The reasons for that decline are debatable-maybe it’s low parental involvement, maybe it’s cultural change, maybe it’s stagnant government schools or some combination thereof. But one thing is certain, it’s time to stop blaming preschoolers for the nation’s education woes.
In any case, the desirability of programs like Head Start and universal preschool should not hinge only on whether preschool works. More basic is the moral question of whether the government should entrench itself still further in the schooling of children. On this question, both presidential contenders are swimming against a powerful tide—witness the increasing demand across the states for alternatives to government-run schools and the growth of multi-million-dollar private scholarship funds, homeschooling, voucher initiatives and tax credits. Parents are working to loosen the government’s grip on education, even as politicians are seeking to extend that hold to preschoolers.
After 35 years without success, it’s time politicians reconsider the wisdom of Head Start. When they do, it will be time to let the program go.