Almost no politician, liberal or conservative, would dare criticize
Head Start, the federal preschool program for underprivileged children.
Head Start’s for the children, which makes it close to untouchable. No
politician wants to be branded as ‘anti-child’—even President Bush has
recently called for a strengthening of Head Start. But Head Start deserves
to be re-examined.
When confronted with Head Start’s lack of results, Head Start’s advocates
reply with a predictable refrain: “More money! More time!” Professor Ed
Zingler of Yale University, one of Head Start’s co-founders, calls for
an expansion of Head Start: “Waiting for children to turn three in order
to be eligible for Head Start is waiting too long.” In plainer language,
leaving poor children in the care of their parents for too long causes
the children to fail.
Federal law requires that every Head Start classroom with 20 children must have at least one teacher with an associate’s degree in early childhood education. Head Start pays tuition for its teachers, from start to finish, so that they can receive their associate’s degrees.
Head Start replaces parents who are poor and uneducated with governmentally approved experts—it replaces parental love with theories of early childhood development. Do classes in early cognitive development provide love the children under Head Start’s care? The question about Head Start is, which is better for a child—a parent’s love, or an associate’s degree and approved educational toys?
Head Start does claim to involve parents—it sponsors classes on early
childhood development, and social workers make visits to the children’s
homes to help parents “learn about the needs of their children and about
educational activities that can take place at home.” But the primary location
for education, the program description implies, is in a classroom—parents
have a secondary role to teachers. We institute these programs that push
parents to the side, and then bemoan the lack of parental involvement in
their children’s lives.
In a recent paper, the National Education Association—the country’s largest teachers’ union—published a list of recommendations for early childhood care: high staff-child ratio; small group size; adequate staff education and training; low staff turnover; a curriculum stressing child-initiated, active learning; and parent involvement. Can’t all these conditions be met by home care, rather than an expensive government program that doesn’t work?
There is no reason to believe that expanding Head Start, or linking it to the public schools, as the NEA has recommended, will do anything to help poor children rise above the circumstances of their birth. What is clear is what won’t work: Committing children at a younger and younger age to the same government schools that will most likely fail them.
Emily Grant, Editor at Large
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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