“End, don’t mend” Head Start


kateA threat by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to separate the city of Detroit some $50 million in Head Start grant money follows allegations of misspending, missing equipment and “chronic under enrollment” among other deficiencies. While I don’t see the downside, city officials are frantically scrambling to repair the damage and retain management of the program.

I anticipate that trying to stop the Head Start steamroller will inevitably draw hostile fire. It is, after all, intended to break the cycle of poverty by raising the social and educational proficiency of low-income preschool children. That’s commendable. At best, however, Head Start has proven to be a costly government-run social program that produces marginal benefits. The government should “end, not mend” Detroit’s involvement.

Head Start is trumpeted as a federal government cure-all for the extreme problems of 3- and 4-year old children from economically deprived families. From 1965 to this day, it is regarded as one of the few enduring successes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

Participants receive a wide-ranging menu of amenities, including health, medical, nutritional and social services. If kids are healthy, have good attitudes and high self-esteem, it is presumed, they will more easily acquire requisite vocabulary and reading skills before entering K-12.

This intense preparation, boosters contend, may also derail an endless stream of problem-prone youth on the way to idleness or prison. However there’s no evidence that the promise of the program has long-term benefits.

Federal, state and independent research reveals pre-school program participants didn’t perform any better or worse than non-participating students. Any positive effects of Head Start diminish over time, usually disappearing by the third or fourth grade.

4180295-blackboard-with-negative-chart-showing-financial-crisisOne reason the benefits are not sustained through elementary school has to do with the sorry state of urban education. Few public schools can afford to provide the kind of comprehensive services and special attention Head Start commits to poor children. It should surprise no one that the early gains of Head Start wash out soon after they collide with the educational crisis in Detroit schools.

The social environments of Head Start children contribute to the calamity. Too many of these kids live in a single-parent, female-headed household. The mother is likely to have limited skills and few employment options. That usually means the lessons children learn in Head Start are not reinforced or sustained by the struggling parent, who out of necessity devotes most of her time to eking out a meager existence.

By contrast, most middle-class children get an early start as a matter of course. They tend to live in homes that support, strengthen and increase the academic stimulation they receive at school.

The cold, hard truth is that we simply cannot immunize children against the destructive forces of childhood poverty in just one year. Head Start’s almost 46 years of existence hasn’t given us reason to think otherwise. It not only failed to make a difference, it has been a bad investment.

The federal government spends about $8 billion a year on the program run by HHS, not the Department of Education. Since mastering the delicate nuances of early education is not its primary focus, Head Start is generally viewed as another way to tax traditional two-parent and single-earner working families to pay for what amounts to day-care for the poor.

Worse, grants are often used as patronage troughs from which selected church leaders and service providers feed and dispense make-work jobs in return for political support.

Because of its low rate of return, a better case can be made that Head Start funding be directed to a reformed K-12 model where it can have more influence in shaping the lives of deprived children. It makes no sense to leave intact an expensive social program that leads poor children to another dead end.

8 thoughts on ““End, don’t mend” Head Start

  1. Bill, this may be one of those government programs that may need to be rexamined with an evluation on the merits of its success or lack thereof.

  2. Bill,

    Given your stance on Headstart in the City of Detroit; how about an article supporting Adult Basic Education. That would attempt to address several fundamental issues raised in your article. Focus Hope does a wonderful job turning folks around assuming that “personal will” exists. The results of Focus Hope is proven! Maybe Headstart funds should be directed to the back end after the prison system has plucked those that have committed crimes already. I think not.

    You certainly pen a stellar piece on black unemployment… And Adult Basic Education.


  3. Years ago I heard Dr. Cornell West address an audience at University of Michigan, and he was asked about affirmative action. He said something like, “affirmative action, it ain’t good, but it’s all we got!” He explained that if the world were free of racism, then yes, affirmative action would not be necessary. Dr. West was asking for a better solution, a better way to solve racism. He was not willing to throw everything away just because affirmative action was not ‘all-solving’ and unable to eliminate racism. He suggested that affirmative action with all of its inadequacies was still a step towards the solution of ending racism. Dr. West’s words echoed into the back of my mind when reading the article “End, don’t mend Head Start.”

    Do I support Head Start? I support anything that fights the effects of poverty. Are the effects long lasting? No, because Head Start’s services do not continue with the students and their families. Head Start does not solve poverty. Head Start tries to bring an equalizing influence to students who are already behind at a time in the child’s life that is so very crucial. Early intervention is done early, before kindergarten. If you wait until kindergarten to address issues of health, literacy, vocabulary and the various other areas of competence that Head Start addresses in their curriculum, then you will perpetuate the uneducated lower class that continue in the same cycle of poverty today. Also, this will take away from the educational part of the kindergarten year that now is able to begin formal reading instruction.

    This article cites the reason for this suggestion of eliminating Head Start with the reference to a recent federal audit uncovering the corruption discovered in the operations of this program. Who runs these programs? The poor? No, the middle class bids for these contracts and operates these programs through churches or government agencies. So, does Mr. Johnson suggest that we should eliminate this program for the poor because the middle class is corrupt and cannot run a decent program? This would be like ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’ It seems like we need some new bath water or controls on the water.

    One statement that is the most disturbing is “the cold, hard truth is that we simply cannot inoculate children against the ravages of poverty… in one year.” This is so true, but who said that Head Start was “inoculating” children from poverty? This statement also does not understand how much growing and developing a child does in one year! Perhaps, a year to Mr. Johnson is not so long. But in the eyes of a three or four year old, it can seem like an eternity. Mr. Johnson, take a look at the brain research, the curriculum, the development and growth of young children that is available and try to understand that one year educationally for a young child is full of experience, base knowledge acquisition, and language development if done in a program like Head Start.

    Human capital is always worth investing. The earlier the investment in humans will prove to be the greater in return to society. This is hard to prove because the business model is applied to the evaluation of this statement. Perhaps, a look at other countries that provide early childhood programming for their youngest citizens will prove that investing in humans is worth it. However, I must warn you, that this means higher taxes. Mr. Johnson, are you willing to invest in human capital? Head Start might be a band-aid, but it has stopped the need for a whole transfusion (which are more expensive medically) and some students do benefit. Please do not discount a program because it does not meet a ‘bottom line.’ Otherwise, the eventual bottom line will mean more inequity, more poverty.

  4. Mr. Johnson
    I don’t think we have a better solution at this time, so maybe we should keep Head Start intact until YOU come up with a viable solution.

  5. Yes I read your article in the Detroit News, regarding the Head Start program. It grieved me to hear a man in the community, speak so negative about something that will and has benefitted the African American community and or all children from every race, creed or color. I am a product of the Head Start program. Without the care and education given to me by the Head Start staff, in the early 60’s, I dont know where my life would be now. They instilled a sense of pride and self-esteem in the fabric of who I am today. My first teacher was an African American male. Who had such a great impact on my life, giving me values and hope as I developed into a young lady. I was the oldest of seven children, there was times of no food or wearing some clothes that someone else gave my family. But Head Start did not make me feel as I was a poverty stricken child. They began to talk about immunizations, health care, safety, fundamentals and basic information for me as a child, turn into a life long learning experience. Even good nutrition and the purpose of table manners, eating with your family, socialization skills.

    I was the only child in my family that went to the Head Start program. I was the only one who graduated from high school and obtained a degree. In the area of Health Services for Head Start families, among other duties. I am the wife and mother of three children. I have been married for over twenty years. I love this program because it gave me a Head Start on many of my classmates, 5th to graduate in my class, honor society, homecomining queen. I became a go getter, not letting society dictate my fate or purpose in this world.

    Why sit from afar and look from the outside in, we have done so much to help families become sucessful. Come see for yourself what we do. Interview me, talk with me. Let me tell you in person. It looks bad from the outside, but we are made of gold on the inside.

  6. Mr. Johnson,
    It is quite perplexing and even more bothersome to me for a man of your stature to write “End, don’t mend” Head Start”. Well, let me tell you the implications of your premature, vexation suggestion. Over the years, millions of young “at risk children” and their families have benefited from the services of Head Start. I am of one of the millions who have participated in Head Start in the city of Detroit. As child growing up on the east side of Detroit, I am so blessed and honored to say Head Start works. I completed high school, I obtained my bachelor’s degree and now, I am current employee of a Head Start program in the city of Detroit. Currently, I am working on a master’s degree. Three of my children were participants of Head Start, too. All three have graduated high school and are working towards furthering their education.
    Head Start is not a social program, it is a comprehensive, high-quality early childhood education program for “at risk children”. Head Start was created by President L. B. Johnson as part of his plan for a “Great Society”. There were many programs developed at that time, but to this date, Head Start is the longest, most effective program to exist. Costly it is not, it is one the wisest investments society could make. For our nation, investing in early childhood education is one of the best investments that can be made. From improved academic outcomes to the economic savings to schools and states, the benefits or high-quality early childhood education are irrefutable (Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, 2008). The benefits of early childhood education for children are life-long. For every dollar that is spent today on early childhood education, eight dollars are saved by not having to provide remedial education services later in a child’s life. Fighting poverty is war that is worth fighting.
    You wrote what you call amenities; these are services that are needed to help prevent young impoverished children fall behind their peers academically and socially. Frankly, you do not have your facts about Head Start right. There is tons of mounting research to prove the benefits of Head Start last a lifetime. Better yet, have a heart and research to find out the truth. It appears that you have been enslaved to the views of the insensitive, reckless decision-making republicans who only care about fattening their own pockets. Poor children are not asking for reparation, they want a chance, a Head Start chance. You are being a house boy! Your own words are lynching you and separating you from those who do care about children……………..all children. Who knows may be a child who could have benefited from Head Start will have a heart and not rob you one day! Not funding Head Start is robbing young, poor children of a future! Quid pro quo!

    RAND Corporation. (2005). Proven Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions. Retrieved July 28, 2011, from Rand.org: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9145/index1.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *