Requiem for Head Start


For a host of complex reasons, including low enrollment, about a dozen Detroit Head Start centers will be closing their doors by the end of 2017. Others may follow. At the end of the day, however, these closings are not catastrophic events.

Special efforts to ensure that disadvantaged children get off to a good start are commendable – if, in fact, they work. But research shows the Head Start experience is merely an expensive flirtation. As the majority of these children enter the real world of learning, they begin a free fall from which they never recover.

In an era where contentious opponents can be found for nearly every program or proposal, Head Start is almost universally praised. The federal program for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families is designed to give children a “head start” on school by offering educational as well as medical care, nutritious food and encouragement.

A number of studies seem to show that Head Start-type programs benefit children who acquire pre-academic social skills, like paying attention and taking turns. This helps establish learning patterns and accelerate emotional development. Monitored children had fewer tendencies to display delinquent behavior in or outside the school.

There too is general belief that these programs have long-term educational benefits that more than repay the taxpayer’s investment. Supporters invariably claim that $1 invested in preschool education saves as much as $6 in future costs of special education, teen pregnancy, welfare and crime. Regrettably, this impressive financial equation is not supported by empirical data. The conclusion of most comprehensive studies, particularly those conducted in urban school districts, is there are no measurable mid-term or long-term benefits from Head Start.

Although children show significant immediate gains when enrolled in the program, by the end of the second or third year of elementary school there are no educationally meaningful differences with respect to self-esteem, achievement motivation and social behavior. Children actually began to lose ground and began mentally dropping out in large numbers as early as the seventh grade.

Unfortunately, linking extensive Head Start to the public school system emerges as a dubious idea, given all the financial and educational problems associated with Detroit K-12.

Typically, children from Detroit families are likely to enter school without the fundamentals of reading and writing or the social skills required to succeed. Parents, mostly mothers, are less likely to provide a home environment that supports learning or challenge the system on behalf of their children. Many parents didn’t finish school and are less likely to encourage their children.

Year after year, Detroit schools demonstrate they are poorly equipped to restore or substitute the authority and influence of parents who tend not to be involved with schools at any level. In this regard, teachers can only be baby-sitters until parents become active, stable participants in the schooling process.

There appears to be no basis for the contention that Head Start gives children from disadvantaged backgrounds a lasting competitive edge. And it’s far from certain whether the Detroit public school system can be restructured to accommodate Head Start grads or address the social disintegration occurring in homes and neighborhoods.

So rather than bemoaning the loss of Head Start, the first priority is to make the public education system work better. If and until that occurs, these “enriched” preschoolers will continue to be public school casualties as they move into the upper grades where they are smothered and devoured by education dysfunction.

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