A Head Start on New Year’s Resolutions

I am going to take a stand this New Year and say that I don’t like bullies.  I don’t mean the 7-8 year old-kind who thinks that pulling your kindergartener’s hair is like playing Voodoo Child.  I mean the kind that lives in the White House, attacks preschoolers and among other things, bombs other people’s children. Two months ago in November 2011, Obama declared that the federally funded pre-school program, Head Start, was not efficient enough and ought to be revamped.  Ordinary people like you and I might think that when a program (or a person) does not do well, it means that they need more help.  Usually when a child is ailing we try to make sure that s/he has medical attention.  We are generally not in the habit of saying “Tommy, this is the third time this year you’ve complained of a tummy ache, it’s time to take you to the doctor and surgically remove your stomach”.

But Obama, the maker-of-change and the bailer-of-banks said, "We're not just gonna put money into programs that don't work"; instead, "We will take money and put them into organizations that do." With jaw dropping arrogance, he also asserted, that it was the “first time in history” that the Head Start program was being made “accountable”.

For those of you who are teachers in any institution in America, you can already translate the secret script behind these corporate euphemisms.  Head Start, the preschool program run with our tax dollars for our most dispossessed children, will now have to “compete” for its funding and meet standards that are decided upon by the administration.  If they fail to meet the criteria, then this public money will be given to private pre-school companies.

Head Start 101

Currently, Head Start centers across the country serve about 900,000 largely low-income students annually on a federal budget of $7 billion. The program was launched in 1965 as a key component in Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative. In 1964 more than half of America’s 30 million people below the official poverty line, were children.  Head Start began as a preschool summer program for children from low-income families to prepare them for public school in the fall.  The program provided preschool classes along with a comprehensive health plan that included medical care, immunizations, dental care and mental health services.  Given its success, Head Start was soon expanded into a full year program.  Since its inception, more than 21 million children have benefitted from this program.

Head Start began with two vital acknowledgments: one, that the playing field was not level and disadvantaged children and their families needed social assistance (as opposed to individual charity) in order function on the same level as the more advantaged; secondly, that education, by itself, was not sufficient to improve lives; hence the inclusion of healthcare and parental participation into the program.

The children who came to Head Start often came from families who lacked the money, social connections and opportunities to graduate college.  Or often High school.  A school hallway for these parents and their children had the potential to be a minefield of failures, intimidation and alienated unfamiliarity.  One of the chief architects of Head Start, Sargent Shriver, famously reasoned that the inside of a school, “must be as intimidating to these disadvantaged children as the inside of a bank to a pauper”.

I am not a fan of Shriver, but this is an extraordinarily prescient observation that connects the dots between poverty, education and the roots of social power.  The fundamental reason Head Start was a success was because it tried to act against prevailing social practices--it tried to guard against and compensate for the damages done by capitalism, not reproduce them.

Obama’s rhetoric about making Head Start accountable is a conscious assault upon this basic principle.  It is an effort to remove the protection this program provides to the children and open them up to the worst ravages of market society.  The reforms are designed to bring the most pernicious aspects of the market into these classrooms: to make them “competitive”, to subject them to constant surveillance and ultimately judge the quality of our children’s education by one criterion only: whether in the future they will make good workers in a globalized marketplace.

But despite his aspirations to be the bigger bully, Obama’s plan to cannibalize Head Start and give public money to private institutions is actually not new.  In 2007 George W. Bush (wait, that was the evil one, right?) signed the Improving Head Start law that gave the government power to impose competition between Head Start centers for federal monies.  Obama’s ‘new’ policy is simply a continuation of that older Bush strategy but with more teeth.

According to the new proposal:

-- Head Start centers will not have their funding renewed automatically, as has been done historically, but will have to prove their competence according to seven criterion set by the administration.

-- Centers that rank towards the bottom 25%, according, to these benchmarks, will have to compete for public funds with private preschool companies.

--All Head Start grants will only be good for five years after which they will be evaluated and their funding determined by their effectiveness.

What is wrong with this picture?

If you have been anywhere near a school, a school-age child, a teacher or indeed any printed material since 2002 you know that Bush’s No child Left Behind policy left behind plenty: school closures, firing of teachers and a brutal standardized testing system that absolutely failed to change America’s declining status on the global education map.  It’s new cousin, Obama’s Race to the Top, has an exactly similar aim.  According to Diane Ravitch, who broke with her previously espoused “market-based ideas of school choice”, the Obama administration has:

dangled $4.3 billion in federal aid before the states in..the Race to the Top. To be eligible to win, the states must increase the number of privately managed charter schools, must agree to evaluate teachers by student test scores, and must commit to “turning around” so-called failing schools (including by closing them or privatizing them).

These same imperatives that are devastating our public school system are now sought to be applied to Head Start.

Most liberal commentators and the mainstream media are falling over each other to support these “reforms”. A New York Times editorial declared that the new evaluation system “can help improve a crucial program for needy children”.  Similarly, William Gormley, co-director of Georgetown University's Center for Research on Children in the United States, called these changes “healthy”.  He added, “Our public schools build on the success of the Head Start program."

Ahh-- now it makes sense: maybe Obama and his backers think that if the children fail early enough in life, as early as preschool, there will be no need for public schools at all.

The March of Unreason

What reason does the administration give for these proposed actions?  Is Head Start really ailing?

First, let’s keep in mind that these fear-mongering images of hordes of feral 3 year-olds robbing us of our tax dollars are just that.  Head Start currently serves less than 50 percent of eligible preschoolers, Early Head Start serves less than 6 percent of all eligible families, and the Child Care Development Block Grant (providing child care assistance to low income families) serves only one out of seven eligible children.

Obama tells us that the new changes are being enacted because a recent study of Head Start, titled National Head Start Impact Study, found that Head Start's measurable impact faded by the time students began first grade.  According to this study:

In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade…

There are several things to be said about this absurd claim and study:

(a) The study was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, the very department that houses Head Start.  In other words, the people in charge of the study were the same people who prior to the study had already demonstrated their commitment to privatization in the domain of education.  Surprise! The results of their “study” matched their desire to “reform” Head Start.  This is like nominating a certain Transylvanian aristocrat to be in charge of reforming blood banks.

(b) This kind of a pseudo-scientific attack on Head Start-- where decontextualized statistics are used to mask a conservative political agenda-- is not new.  As early as 1969, the Westinghouse study declared that Head Start was basically a failure and its impact on preschoolers was negligible.  Richard Nixon, then in charge, pounced upon these “findings” and declared “no increase in any anti-poverty program until more research is in”.  Nixon was cheered on by his loving Urban Affairs bureaucrat, Daniel Moynihan, a Democrat.

This is what Edward Ziglar, one of the foundational members of the Head Start initiative and a faculty member at Yale had to say about the Westinghouse Report:

In the first grade in particular, the Head Start children did better than the control group on the Metropolitan Readiness Test…[a test] as yet uncompromised by the effects of further schooling.  Furthermore, Head Start appeared to be more effective among certain subgroups, such as black children in large cities in the Southeast.  And parents of Head Start enrollees were nearly unanimous in voicing strong support for the program. (Ziglar, Head Start, 1992)

Let’s translate that: Head Start children did really well at the point of their shortest distance away from Head Start, i.e. first grade.  Children from minority communities did even better and ALL Head Start parents loved the program.  What further reasons could we find for dismantling the program?

One thing, however, is consistent about these kinds of studies and their outcomes: the further the children get from the Head Start program the worse they perform in school.

You would have to be a moron, or an US lawmaker, if you fail to see that the source of this problem does not lie with Head Start but in our underfunded public education system.  The gains of a compassionate program tended to disappear when the children entered the less friendly, race-to-the-bottom, standardized testing pit.  Public school teachers, some of the most hard working people in the country, are helpless to correct this given the concerted attack upon public education, their own jobs, benefits and self-esteem by successive presidential policies, Republican and Democrat alike.

How to solve the problem?

How about the radical idea of paying the Head Start teachers more than the current near-minimum wage salary?

Today, Head Start has about 50,000 teachers, and their average salary is about $21,000.  It would cost $1 billion per year to pay Head Start teachers the same as kindergarten teachers (who are still badly paid).  I am sure important looking guys in suits would say that the government just does not have that kind of money.  Just a fact to muse over for the money-starved-government out to slash Head Start funding: in 2010 corporate giant General Electric claimed $3.2 billion in tax credits.

Serious studies about Head Start and other such programs that work against the market ethos show that investment in these programs is actually beneficial for the whole of society in the long run, even in crass money terms.

According to one such study “Our society receives nearly $9 in benefits for every $1 dollar invested in Head Start children” (Meier, 2004). These projected benefits include “increased earnings, employment, and family stability, and decreased welfare dependency, crime costs, grade repetition, and special education. In addition, Head Start has been shown to benefit participating children and society at large by reducing crime and its costs to crime victims” (Fight Crime Invest In Kids, 2004; Garces, Thomas, and Currie, 2002).

When Obama unveiled his plans to slash Head Start and expose the children to the vicious cruelties of the market (the system that sponsored the recession for most of us!), he was actually honest about one thing.  He revealed that his reason for jeopardizing the future of so many preschool children was so that the US could produce the “best-educated workforce in the world”.

Some of us like to see our children as people with untold potential.  Some of us think that children have the right to grow up as human beings and citizens of the world first, and not merely as workers serving up profits to the corporations.

I know you do too.

So come again, and bring your children.