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Caveat emptor: the Head Start scam.

There is no evidence that the program results in long-term effects on rates of graduation, teenage pregnancy, crime, and unemployment.

IT IS SAFE to say that Americans public schools are not exactly basking in the glow of achievement and approbation. While the education establishment continues to block fundamental state and Federal reform efforts, public disaffection with the nation's system of public education is at an all-time high. Business leaders increasingly are vocal in their criticism of public schools. Journalists are not as eager as they used to be to parrot the National Education Association's line on school reform. Activists across the country have won important victories--from privately funded voucher plans to local and state choice initiatives--against sloth and bureaucratic intransigence. Students in Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, Georgia, and Texas already or soon will receive vouchers from businesses and foundations to attend local private schools. Private firms are managing public schools in several states, and Chris Whittle's Edison Project plans a nationwide network of for-profit schools to revolutionize American education.

Yet, even as public elementary and secondary schools increasingly draw fire from every side, one government-run education program continues to attract substantial political and public support--Head Start. Liberal Democratic and conservative Republican governors tout it. Even disgruntled, frustrated business leaders--willing to back revolutionary change in kindergarten through 12th-grade education-nonetheless sing the praises of Head Start, a Great Society program that spends billions of dollars a year to provide educational, developmental, medical, and nutritional services to poor preschoolers.

Head Start's impressive public relations triumph should surprise no one. Boosters base their appeal on a sensible-sounding premise: If it is possible to intervene early in poor children's lives, giving them a "head start" on developing into good students and well-adjusted teens, then many of them will not grow up to be welfare mothers, deadbeats, or criminals. With every social catastrophe averted, the nation will be saved a lot of worry, trouble, and money. That is the essence of fiscal conservatism, advocates maintain, since a little public investment now will pay huge dividends in tax revenues and forgone social spending later. Head Start's sales pitch works wonderfully. Business leaders like the investment rhetoric. Journalists love all the photo opportunities with cute, smiling kids. Teachers' union officials and other leaders of the education establishment relish the chance to extend their reach beyond kindergarten into the preschool years. Big-spending politicians enjoy touting a program that actually appears to work. Fiscal conservatives prefer Head Start's relatively low price tag.

Shaky foundations

However, Head Start's major selling point--early intervention can prevent future dependence and delinquency--rests on several shaky foundations. First, it assumes that policymakers can draw sweeping national conclusions from studies of a few unique (and non-Head Start) preschool programs. Second, it assumes that children's futures are fundamentally malleable and that a brief outside intervention can make an indelible impact on most youngsters' lives despite the continuing influence of both heredity and environment. Third, the Head Start thesis assumes not only that successful early intervention is possible, but that government is an appropriate and effective provider of it.

All three of those propositions are false. Head Start's hucksters, all smiles and promises, have sold the public on a shiny prototype that bears little resemblance to what actually will be provided and, upon closer examination, is an empty shell with nothing under it. Before American policymakers sign anything, they'd better take a good look at what they're getting.

The efficacy of preschool programs hasn't been ignored by academic and government researchers. During the past three decades, researchers have published hundreds of studies on preschool programs nationwide. More than 200 focused on the Head Start program itself, with approximately half of them providing detailed information about samples and results. The distinction between studies of Head Start and those of other preschool programs is crucial, since not all are created equal.

Policymakers have gotten the wrong impression about Head Start by listening to enthusiastic boosters who cite the success of model preschool programs as though it proved the efficacy of Head Start. One can't judge the quality of a Ford Escort by test driving a Lincoln Continental. Similarly, Head Start must be judged on its own merits, not by a sort of "fleet averaging" gimmick that hypes the successes of one or two unique projects that aren't Head Start programs at all.

Perhaps the most famous preschool in the U.S. is the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich. In 1962, it selected 123 poor kids to take part in an experiment. Half the group was given two years of preschool instruction and services, two and one-half hours a day, five days a week. The other half took part in no preschool program. Both then were tracked throughout their academic careers and into adulthood. The Perry students demonstrated not only significant short-term gains-higher IQ scores one year into the program, for example--but also long-term gains. About two-thirds of the Perry group graduated from high school, compared to 50% of the control group. Similarly, whereas 51% of the control group had been arrested by age 19 for some crime, less than one-third of the Perry graduates had.

Studies of the long-term effects of the Perry program--many conducted by the operators of the program itself--made a big splash when they first were published in the mid 1980s. Suddenly, there was "hard evidence" for the notion that universal preschool for poor children significantly could reduce crime, increase graduation rates, boost employment, and lessen dependency on public services. The Perry studies even generated a useful factoid for advocates of preschool education: every dollar spent on "quality preschool education" saves about $5 in future economic, education, welfare, and crime costs.

Policymakers in the 1990s should keep in mind the atmosphere in which those findings were made public. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, Washington bureaucrats running Great Society programs got a big scare. Most believed their programs were doomed. Even though Head Start enjoyed strong support from Reagan Administration officials such as budget director David Stockman and Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, program boosters sought to cement their support. They made a calculated effort to link the long-term benefits of the Perry Preschool with Head Start. In fact, while the researchers who studied Perry believed their results wouldn't generate much national interest, Head Start supporters engineered a highly successful public relations effort that created a boomlet of positive press coverage. As Edward Zigler, the creator of Head Start in the 1960s, indicated, program boosters believed that "if the research had implications for Head Start funding, reporters would be interested." They were.

The problem is that the studies of the Perry project actually don't tell very much about the efficacy of Head Start. For openers, the Perry project and Head Start are not interchangeable. "These programs were conducted under ideal circumstances," wrote Ron Haskins, a staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee, in a 1989 article for the American Psychologist. "They had skilled researchers, capable staffs with lots of training, ample budgets.... It seems unwise to claim that the benefits produced by such exemplary programs would necessarily be produced by ordinary preschool programs conducted in communities across the United States."

The difference between studies of the results of the Perry experiment and those of Head Start programs couldn't be more striking. A 1985 US. Department of Health and Human Services analysis of Head Start studies to date showed that ambitious claims for its long-term effects were exaggerated: "Children enrolled in Head Start enjoy significant immediate gains in cognitive test scores, socioemotional test scores, and health status. 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. " More recent research confirms that conclusion. Short-term gains in intelligence scores and learning skills disappear for most Head Start students after two years at school, and copious evidence that it has a long-term effect on graduation rates, teen pregnancy, crime, or unemployment simply don't exist.

Another major difference between Perry and Head Start is obvious. Studies of the Perry project and a few similar initiatives track only a relative handful of students though their academic and early adult lives. Research on Head Start, on the other hand, involves hundreds of preschool programs and thousands of children. When dealing with complex issues such as child development, researchers and policymakers must seek out a consensus--not simply publicize a few best cases. To any fair-minded observer, the evidence available to date on Head Start suggests only temporary academic benefits. A few studies of Head Start programs show limited benefits extending until about junior high school, but most do not. Grandiose claims about Head Start's being an anti-poverty, anti-crime, or welfare-reform program exhibit little regard for truth or reason.

The problem with early intervention

Policymakers should seek a consensus among researchers and academic literature when devising new policies or evaluating old ones. Yet, in the case of Head Start, as in many others, elected officials, bureaucrats, and opinion leaders have mistaken a few special cases for proof of a general thesis that early intervention by the Federal government can keep poor children from growing up into poor adults or criminals. The reason elected officials and others swallow the Head Start hype hook, line, and sinker is that they believe in early intervention as an article of faith, not a proposition to be proven or disproven with facts.

That is ironic, given that the early intervention fad in child development and education circles, which began in the 1950s and gained momentum during the 1960s, is starting to fade. Liberal social workers, development specialists, educators, and others graduated from college in the 1950s and 1960s convinced that a child's social and intellectual development was infinitely malleable.

However, after years of research in developmental psychology, as well as years of experience in running the new social programs of the Great Society, many experts began to change their opinions. It became apparent that youngsters' minds are so unique, and personal traits so determined by heredity and idiosyncratic relationships between parents and children, that researchers no longer could defend their limitless faith in the efficacy of intervention.

Research by Harvard University developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan revealed significant differences in the way children develop at very early ages, before parenting environments really can make a difference. For example, studies showed that, even in the first week of life, middle-class Chinese-American infants displayed different personality traits than did middle-class Caucasian infants. Other studies using twins separated at birth demonstrated that heredity has an important influence on future behavior. Psychologists found that general rules about the success of particular parenting styles or environments were hard to come by. Research showed that the relationship between care providers (parents, therapists, teachers) and children matters more than the type of care provided. Because kids exhibit different personalities--due largely to heredity--they require different types of care, therapy, and education.

For decades, those currents of thought flowed through the psychological literature without having a great deal of impact on policy. In recent years, though, psychologists and child development experts have begun to speak out against some of the main assumptions of the therapeutic state and against the idea that preschool education is a "silver bullet" against social problems. In a 1990 article in Science, a number of experts told reporter Constance Holden of their doubts about Head Start's success. Kagan, for instance, noted that early intervention programs traditionally have been spelled out like recipes--administer the treatment, then measure the outcome. The crucial aspect, however, may be the relationship between the person doing the intervening and the child, and "we don't know how to measure relationships."

Kagan's point has great relevance to the Head Start debate. If he is right, not only is it unwise to assume that a few unique projects prove the need for universal preschool education, it also is a fundamental misunderstanding of the data. Personal talents of staff, not design, explain the success of a few projects. So, a mandated universal preschool program for poor children, even one based on the model of the Perry Preschool, will not enjoy the success its boosters assume.

Several other noted developmental psychologists and education experts have questioned the assumptions behind the Head Start myth. Russell Gersten of the University of Oregon told Holden that early intervention research "is not a very intellectually rigorous field." He said the field was highly politicized and therefore had produced "mushy findings" such as those on the Perry Preschool project. Child development specialist Craig Ramey also blamed the problem on political influence, indicating that, in order to support Head Start, an idea everyone in the field thought instinctively was good, research on early intervention "got pushed prematurely into looking at long-term consequences"--the purported findings that research data support the least.

It is important to remember that many of the experts still believe in the efficacy of government programs; they simply do not buy Head Start's claim to be a "silver bullet." Most, in fact, favor even more government spending on new "Head Start Plus" programs that would continue to provide special attention and services to youngsters throughout their school careers. For instance, a study conducted by J.S. Fuerst of the Loyola University School of Social Work traced the performance of 684 Chicago kids who attended not only two years of preschool, but also, during their elementary school years, two to seven additional years of what Fuerst calls "Head Start to the fourth power." While his initial research--published in 1974 when most of the students were age 13 and younger--found significant reading and math gains, his latest study tells a different story: 62% of the participating students graduated from high school, compared to the national average of 80%. The graduation rate had improved relative to a control group of poor children, but the long-term impact of the intensive Chicago program was disappointing nevertheless.

Fuerst contends that his results only prove the need for special education programs that last as long as nine years--shattering the notion that a small early investment heads off bigger costs down the road. It also poses an obvious question: Why not fix the school system itself, rather than devise new and expensive Federal supplements to it? Furthermore, if children can avoid the ravages of poverty, dependency, and delinquency only if they receive a quality education throughout their school career, why spend extra money on Head Start in the first place? Early intervention never could make as much of a difference to a child as 13 years of quality education could, as even the most vocal Head Start booster admits.

International evidence would tend to support the view that early intervention is not a panacea for learning difficulties. Indeed, in such countries as Japan and Korea, no Head Start types of programs exist for the vast majority of children. In general, Asian parents simply do not believe that formal instruction during a child's preschool years provides a boost in educational achievement. Instead, explain Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler, authors of The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education, "Asian mothers believe that whatever teaching they do with their preschool children should be as informal as possible. " Japanese preschools have no relationship to elementary schools; they exist primarily to help children "learn to enjoy group life and to participate effectively in it."

At first, American children do exhibit academic benefits from formal preschool experiences. American kindergartners hold their own, or even outscore their Asian peers, on various tests of academic performance. However, those benefits are purely short-term. "Only a year separates the ages of the kindergartners and the first-graders, but during this time the performance of the American children deteriorates relative to that of the Chinese and Japanese children."

The dilemma posed for proponents of the Head Start myth by modern psychological research perhaps is summarized best by Sandra Scarr, who has served as president or board member of some of the most prestigious professional associations in psychology during her academic career. She believes in an activist role for government in day care and other areas, yet questions many of the assumptions implicit in the Head Start hype. She maintains that heredity plays a crucial role in development, children's natures are not infinitely malleable by outside forces, and parenting environments need not be uniformly "perfect" for children to succeed. "Fortunately, evolution has not left development of the human species, nor any other, at the easy mercy of variations in their environments," she stated in her 1991 presidential address to the Society for Research in Child Development. "We are robust and able to adapt to wide-ranging circumstances. . . . If we were so vulnerable as to be led off the normal developmental track by slight variations in our parenting, we should not long have survived."

Scarr is blunt about Head Start. "There is quite a mystique in our culture about the importance of early intervention," she told Holden, yet "there is no evidence [for it] whatever." Scarr and other child development experts may favor a significantly different approach to education reform than do free-market thinkers, but they clearly reject the notion that investing our hopes and our tax dollars in preschool education programs such as Head Start will make our social ills go away. It is the public schools that must change. Head Start is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for helping poor children succeed.

What should the Federal government's role be?

Despite the paucity of evidence that Head Start has a long-term impact on youngsters, there is no doubt that its medical, nutritional, and, to some extent, educational services provide immediate benefits to poor children. It does not follow, however, that a Federal government program is needed to provide those services to preschoolers. A mix of private-sector, nonprofit, church, community group, and extended family providers is a better way to assure such care for children, poor or not.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that an ever-increasing number of employers help their employees find quality day care and preschool programs. Some large corporations, such as Campbell Soup Co., Corning Glass Works, and Richardson-Vicks U.S.A., provide their workers with onsite or near-site day care centers for a low weekly fee. Other corporations are forming consortia to make child care available to employees who live in a particular city or metropolitan area. Still, the number of companies that can provide programs on site always will remain rather small; a 1989 survey of employers by Developmental Child Care, Inc. found that just 600 firms--out of 3,700 that gave employees some help with child care--had centers on site. The remaining ones provided financial assistance, information, referral, and flexible personnel policies to help employees find the care best suited to their children. There is no need for government to force further action on this front, since competitive pressures will continue to drive many large and medium-sized companies toward helping employees find appropriate care for their offspring.

Child care and preschool will be a major growth industry throughout the 1990s. American Demographics estimates that the child care business will grow 21% a year until at least 1995, when for-profit services will claim nearly half of all child care spending. There already are more than 60,000 licensed day care centers in the U.S. and many more in-home day care settings across the country. Meanwhile, demographers predict that the population of three- to five-year-olds will reach 12,000,000 in 1993.

Given those trends, it should come as no surprise that America's education establishment covets the huge, lucrative market for providing preschool care. That is one reason the National Education Association, state and Federal education bureaucrats, education researchers and consultants, and their legislative allies in Washington and the state capitals spend so much time attributing current education problems to lack of a comprehensive Federal Head Start program. Indeed, the education establishment would like to take it one step further and base virtually all Head Start and preschool programs at public schools. They view the prospect of a dynamic, private marketplace for preschool care with much disdain. By masterminding further Federal intervention in preschool programs, the establishment hopes to broaden and strengthen its power over American education.

U.S. leaders and policymakers need to think more strategically about how best to improve the lives and prospects of poor children. First, there is the issue of child care costs. Church and community day care cost an average of $46 a week per youngster, or $2,392 annually, in 1990. Some church-run centers provide lower cost care, while private, selective preschools and centers can run up to $100 or more a week.

Government is one major cause of such high totals. Local and state regulations of employees, staff-child ratios, services, insurance, and amenities increase the per child expense of preschool and child care significantly. Zoning is another major culprit, forcing child care centers into business or industrial areas and raising building costs. Even researchers who are sanguine about the impact of government regulations nonetheless advocate lifting some of the costliest rules, such as child-staff ratios, and reducing the regulatory burden on informal home care arrangements that provide adequate, low-cost services for most families--especially for poor ones who may find formal centers or preschools beyond their means even after deregulation. Relieving preschools, day care centers, and informal child care arrangements of regulatory burdens would do much to help poor families provide for their offspring. Radically altering the Federal government's current role in preschool programs--by ending the Head Start program--would help even more. The amount of Federal funds appropriated for Head Start in Fiscal Year 1992-$2,200,000,000--represents a per child expenditure of $3,410, surely a sum large enough to provide care for a child in the private or nonprofit sector. Policymakers should convert Head Start funds into direct grants to families, thus allowing poor parents to choose among care providers. For all the same reasons that choice and competition could improve public schools, Head Start-like services would be provided better in the already competitive marketplace for child care and preschool programs.

An even better approach would be to convert Federal money now committed to Head Start into vouchers or tax relief to give parents the opportunity to send their children to private or parochial schools in their communities. If the Federal government exchanged the amount of money spent on Head Start in 1992 for $2,000 vouchers--which significantly would defray the cost of attending most private schools -each year as many as 1,100,000 poor children would have the chance to get a decent education in a local school of their parents' choice. Helping them to attend quality elementary and secondary schools would be a much better public investment than extending the Federal government's reach further into the lives of preschool children.

Head Start's popularity is due more to slick salesmanship and superficial thinking about child development than to proven success. The immediate benefits it confers on poor children--by improving their nutrition, providing a safe and stimulating environment, and helping teach their mothers and fathers basic parenting skills--could be made available to poor families more efficiently through a competitive, deregulated marketplace of private centers, nonprofit organizations, and church- and community-run programs. More important, early intervention by any outside institution is not a panacea for the long-term ravages of poverty. The money spent on Head Start, if converted into vouchers for poor children to attend the schools of their parents' choice, offers a much better prospect of ending the poverty cycle and its immense public costs than does increased government control of and intervention in the lives of American preschoolers.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hood, John
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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