Cost of Expanded ‘Head Start’ Said Modest

May 10, 1989 6 min read

According to Owen B. Butler, chairman of the Committee for Economic Development and former chairman of Proctor & Gamble Company, the largest hindrance to school improvement is the lack of “national will” to solve problems identified by researchers and educators.

In a speech at the Public Television Annual Meeting in April, Mr. Butler emphasized the need for early-childhood education for children “at risk” and cited dimensions of the financial commitment needed to expand such programs as Head Start:

We have a Head Start program that reaches 20 to 25 percent of the children who are eligible--need it and are eligible. What does that mean? In a class of 20, 5 kids are ready for 1st grade because of their parenting, 5 kids are ready for 1st grade because we stepped in and gave them Head Start, and 10 kids aren’t.

What does a teacher do? She tries generally to help those 10 ... survive the 1st-grade experience. And what happens to the 10 who were prepared for the 1st grade? They don’t progress very far. It is this weight of unprepared children that not only causes our dropout rate and our teenage pregnancy rate and our crime rate, but that pulls down the achievement of the entire system. ...

The good news is that once thinking people understand this problem and understand the economics, they will move to solve the problem.

Let me give you an idea of how small the economics are. In the state of Ohio, for example, if we would increase our income tax by only 0.2 of 1 percent, from 6.9 percent to 7.1 percent maximum rate, we would generate enough funds to expand Head Start to cover every eligible child for one year; we could provide on-site child care for every teen mother in the state, and we could provide summer school for every student who is about to fail a grade and wants to avoid that by coming back to summer school.

Two-tenths of a percent. The total cost of providing total care from prenatal care through age 5 for all of our children in poverty nationally is about $11 billion. Not much more than one year’s increase in Social Security. This is not a big expense.

Judicial recognition of lawsuits for “educational malpractice” would effectively focus attention on the shortcomings of public education, the writer Nat Hentoff suggests in the current volume of Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, devoted to the theme “Caring for America’s Children.”

In the following excerpts from his essay, Mr. Hentoff outlines the grounds for such suits:

There are many high-school graduates who do not read above the 6th-grade level. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, a few of them tried to sue the school systems that had given them worthless diplomas. They claimed to have been the victims of educational malpractice. ...

There were two reasons [commonly cited by courts for dismissing such cases].

First, if the courts were to second-guess the professional judgments of public-school educators and administrators, the floodgates would open. Hordes of public-school graduates, unhappy with the damage done to them in their classes, would haul school districts and school personnel into court.

Second, according to the courts, education is a complex and often delicate process beyond the ken of jurists. ...

[But] students who have been deprived of the very foundation of an education--being able to read--have constitutional grounds for suing.

When the state undertakes to provide an education in its public schools, the state is then required to do just that. It is not required to provide the best possible education, but under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, it must give each child a reasonably adequate education. That is, due process of law cannot be just a promise.

Under the 14th Amendment, moreover, no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In agreeing to confer the benefit of education on its youngest residents, the state thereby creates a constitutionally protected property right. But when a high-school graduate can’t read, that property right has become valueless.

If a few courts throughout the country would finally recognize that educational malpractice can be as real and as severely damaging as medical malpractice, the resulting money verdicts would likely bring about more pervasive attention to each child in the schools than all the hortatory books and reports on the chronic crisis.

In the February issue of the Harvard Educational Review, the noted educator Eliot Wigginton identifies as the foundation of his teaching the effort to “bring the academic agenda to life as students use the items on that agenda in the solution of real problems, or the creation of real products that the community values and applauds.”

Drawing on more than 20 years of experience working with students at Rabun County (Ga.) High School on the Foxfire books and magazines, Mr. Wigginton outlines in the following selections some of the practices defining this philosophy:

All the work teachers and students do together must flow from student desire. It must be infused from the beginning with student choice, design, revision, execution, reflection, and evaluation.

Most problems that arise during the activity must be solved by students. When one asks, “Here’s a situation that just came up. I don’t know what to do about it. What should I do?” the teacher turns that question back to the class to wrestle with and solve rather than simply answering it.

Students are trusted continuously, and all are led to the point where they embrace responsibility.

Connections of the work to the surrounding community and the real world outside the classroom are clear. Members of the community are frequently the resources from which the students draw. ...

The work is characterized by student action rather than passive receipt of processed information. ...

Because students are always operating at the very edge of their competence, it must also be made clear to them that the consequence of mistakes is not failure, but positive, constructive scrutiny of those mistakes by the rest of the class in an atmosphere where students will never be embarrassed. ...

A constant feature of the process is its emphasis on peer teaching, small-group work, and teamwork. Every student in the room is not only included, but needed, and in the end, each student can identify his or her specific stamp upon the effort. In a classroom thus structured, discipline takes care of itself and ceases to be an issue.

The role of the teacher is that of collaborator and team leader and guide, rather than boss or the repository of all knowledge.

Writing in the Winter/Spring issue of the New Jersey Bell Journal, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett recommends that businesses use “strong-arm tactics” to accelerate education reform.

By linking their investments in schools to specified goals, companies can enforce accountability, he suggests here:

There’s no questioning the generosity of business. It has put its money where its mouth is time and again, but these efforts have not been focused enough.

Business should exercise some leverage, for example, by making a gift of computer equipment contingent upon improvement in math and science scores, or by tying the amount of next year’s funding to the degree of improvement in the dropout rate, or to conforming with curriculum standards.

It also makes sense for a company to lay its money on certain people it believes to be effective. I would tend not to give money to a system, which will swallow it up, and you will never see it again. Find an individual and bet on that person. ...

Business should not consider its support of public education to be charity. It’s an investment, and as such, high returns should be demanded--or else.

Too much is at stake for corporations to continue being Mr. Nice Guy. They should use their leverage to assure quality education the same way as they do to achieve other business objectives.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 1989 edition of Education Week as Cost of Expanded ‘Head Start’ Said Modest