Early Childhood Opinion

The ‘Failure’ of Head Start

By John Merrow — September 25, 2002 6 min read
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John Merrow’s documentary “The Promise of Preschool” will appear on PBS next month. He is the author of Choosing Excellence (Scarecrow Press, 2001) and an education correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

Head Start has failed. The federal preschool program for 4-year-olds was supposed to “level the playing field” for poor children, and it has not done that.

Educationally and linguistically, poor children are behind from the beginning. Parents with professional jobs speak about 2,100 words an hour to toddlers; those in poverty only about 600. Not surprisingly, a 5-year-old child from a low-income home has a 5,000-word vocabulary, while a middle-class child already knows 20,000 words.

One reason for its failure was the misguided practice at some Head Start centers, where teaching the alphabet was actually banned, in favor of teaching social skills. But the dominant reason for the persistent gap is the fervor with which middle- and upper-middle-class parents embrace preschool.

These parents enroll their own children in preschool because they know that 3- and 4-year-olds are ready and eager to learn. Seventy-six per cent of 4-year-olds from households with an annual income of more than $50,000 are enrolled. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that twice as many 3- to 5-year-olds from families with incomes above $75,000 are enrolled, compared with children whose parents make $10,000 a year.

By contrast, fewer than half of children whose families fall below the poverty line attend preschool, not because their parents don’t want them to, but because we haven’t created enough Head Start programs. To serve all the eligible children, we’d need twice as many as we have. Once again, we’re talking the talk when it comes to helping poor children, but not walking the walk. And, largely for that reason, the gap will not only not disappear, it will grow.

We ought to be embarrassed about our approach to preschool. Most industrialized countries provide free, high-quality preschool for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, regardless of family income. Almost all 4-year-olds in England, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands go to public school; 70 percent of German, Danish, and Greek 4- year- olds go to public school; and over 90 percent of 4- and 5-year-olds in Italy and Spain are in public school.

One reason for its failure was the misguided practice at some Head Start centers, where teaching the alphabet was actually banned.

We’re the opposite: a patchwork nonsystem with weakly trained, poorly paid staff members. The quality ranges from excellent to abysmal, the tuition from $15,000 to zero, the teachers’ salaries from $45,000 a year with benefits to as low as $8 or $9 per hour, with no benefits.

I’ve just spent seven weeks driving around Europe, visiting lots of small towns and villages. Every small town I visited in France had a sign, prominently placed, pointing the way to the local école maternelle, the town’s preschool. Had I stopped to look, I would have found every 3- and 4- year- old from the village at the school.

A few months earlier, I visited three écoles maternelles in very different neighborhoods in Paris. The school serving poor children was virtually identical to those serving middle-class and upper- middle-class children. All three schools were staffed with well-trained, well- paid teachers, because all école maternelle teachers must have master’s degrees, and all are paid at the same rate as elementary school teachers. Today in France, 100 percent of children ages 3 through 5 attend preschool, most in public programs.

In the United States, preschool is a seller’s market, and even well-off parents have to endure “preschool panic,” because there’s not enough quality to go around. One of the families in our forthcoming PBS documentary on the subject moved from New York City to France while we were filming. The parents had been forced to choose between career opportunities for themselves and a decent preschool for their sons. Today, while both parents are struggling to develop their careers in France, their children are in sound educational programs.

Today preschool is on a lot of state agendas. According to the Child Care Action Campaign, 42 states now have some form of “preschool initiative.” However, that phrase encompasses everything from legislative proposals to real programs, and only Georgia, New York, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia have genuine programs that provide free preschool for a substantial number of children.

Georgia is at the head of the preschool class. Its program currently serves more than 63,000 4-year-olds. In toto, 70 percent of Georgia’s 4-year-olds are now in some form of publicly subsidized preschool. The Georgia program is the brainchild of former Gov. Zell Miller, now a U.S. senator, who believes that “preschool is more important than the 12th grade in high school.” Georgia requires districts to offer prekindergarten and pays the bill—$240 million a year—with money from its lottery and with federal Head Start funds. New York and Oklahoma are leaving it up to school districts to decide whether they will provide such services, with the state paying the bills. But states are hard-pressed for funds these days, and so, for example, New York’s legislature has put up less than half the money needed to establish programs across the state.

We know that good preschools have long-term benefits for children, and we ought to recognize that as a nation.

Creating high-quality programs is proving to be difficult. No state is starting from scratch, of course, which means that any new program must be grafted on to what exists. And what exists is a hodgepodge of programs: Some are run for profit, some are staffed with trained, well-paid teachers, some are storefront operations where a TV set is the caregiver, and so on. Some Head Start programs are excellent, but others are woeful. One evaluation of Head Start found that some children began knowing just one letter of the alphabet, A, and left nine months later without having learned B.

President Bush says he wants to change that, but his proposal is flawed. To improve literacy skills, he plans to give 2,500 Head Start teachers four days of training in early-literacy instructional techniques, after which they are supposed to pass on what they learned to the other 47,000 Head Start teachers. Critical reaction was immediate. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. George Miller, D- Calif., told reporters, “The idea that you would be able to create reading specialists among Head Start teachers with four days of training is absurd.”

Moreover, the president’s budget won’t allow Head Start to grow, even though the program misses more than half of eligible children.

I believe that we’re operating from the wrong premise. Instead of relying on income-based programs like Head Start that are supposed to help the poor, we ought to be creating a system that would be good enough for the well-off. Create something that’s good enough for those with money, but make it available to everyone. Design a preschool system the way we built our Interstate highway system. We didn’t create separate highways for rich and poor. Instead, we built an Interstate system that was good enough for people behind the wheel of a Cadillac or a Lexus, a Corvette or a Mercedes, and there were no complaints from those driving a Chevy or a Ford.

Creating universal, free, high-quality preschool will be difficult, complicated, and costly: By one estimate, it would cost $30 billion a year to run programs just for those 3- and 4-year-olds from families making less that $30,000 a year. For all 3- and 4-year-olds, “The cost could easily be $100 billion,” according to Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. However, we know that good preschools have long-term benefits for children, and we ought to recognize that as a nation.

It took 50 years for the United States to be able to compete as a peer in soccer’s World Cup with Italy, Mexico, Portugal, France, Germany, Sweden, and other long-established powers. We cannot afford to take that long to catch up in the world of preschool education.

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