American Elephants

Throwing Good Money After Proven Bad Policy by The Elephant's Child

It does not matter how often you show that a program does not work, and in the case of Head Start, studies have been showing it to be ineffective for years, but — it’s “for the children.” When a study has just emerged and funding would seem to be questionable, you just tack it on to another urgent bill, in this case, Sandy Relief, and $100 million.

A billion here, a billion there, who can keep track?

On January 4, Congress approved $9.7 billion in initial relief for victims of the storm. A second vote on the rest of the $60.4 billion aid package is planned for Tuesday, and among the numerous items unrelated to clean-up efforts is $100 million in additional funding for Head Start, the LBJ-era program that already spends $8 billion a year trying to prepare low-income toddlers for kindergarten.

Since its creation as part of the War on Poverty in 1965, nearly 30 million children have participated in Head Start at a taxpayer cost of more than $180 billion. The problem is that by the government’s own reckoning the program has never achieved what it promises.

The first major evaluation was in 1969 by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University. It found that pre-schoolers who did make cognitive gains did not maintain them in early grades and that Head Start participants performed no better than children from similar backgrounds who had never been in the program. Federal evaluations in 1985 and 2005 also found that any positive cognitive impact was transitory.

President Obama has said that education policy should  e driven not by ideology but by “what works.” The administration in 2009 sat on a very positive performance review of the Washington D.C. school voucher program which it opposed. The Congressionally mandated study of the Head Start program was finally released more than a year late. Using the political cover of disaster relief to toss more money into a bad program at a time when the country is running trillion-dollar deficits is evidence of Congressional bad faith.


6 Comments so far
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I, unfortunately, was one of the poster-child kids for the “success” of Head Start (literally! – by the time I was in 5th grade, my kindergarten picture was plastered on every guidance office in the state of Texas). I was way ahead of the learning curve all through school (they even jumped me from 1st grade to 3rd grade), and this got used to tout the advantages of Head Start. It wasn’t until later that they did testing and found that I was one of those naturally intelligent with high retention and the ability to recall (sometimes referred to as eidetic, or “photographic” memory), and it was concluded that I would have developed the same with or without Head Start. Didn’t stop the Head Start people from claiming me as a “success”, though.


Comment by Lon Mead

Fascinating story, Lon. I wish I had a better memory, I have to look everything up. Massachusetts, among the states has the best record on K-12 education. Why aren’t we imitating their success? Or imitating the math classes in the countries that rank so high? Get Asian “Tiger Mothers” to teach new mothers how to help their children succeed. Instead we are apparently getting a “core curriculum” that drops good literature and substitutes training manuals. Unbelievable.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

Well, that kind of memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You may have noticed on previous posts where I tend to free-associate… sometimes I can wander WAY off-topic. And some memories you just want to leave behind.

I think where the education system started breaking down is when the federal government decided to start treating it like some sort of competition. Instead of letting each region and school system develop curricula based on what worked and was needed for that particular area, the federal government (there’s a temptation to say the Department of Education, but this all pre-dates the DoE’s creation) pushed for homogeneity – every student learning the same thing in the same way. Unfortunately, not everyone learns in the same way. Different people learn different things in different ways. For example, I was helping a student who just couldn’t “get” geometry… the text just confused him, and the teacher (nice enough, but a serious math geek) wasn’t able to explain it in terms the student could understand. This student was big into carpentry, though, and once it was explained that carpentry was largely geometry (with a bit of physics thrown in) and he was taught to think of it in those terms, he did very well (he’s attending Tennessee Tech now)

Where I graduated high school, in Louisville, KY, they have an excellent magnet program all the way through the county. Performing arts (my course of study at the Youth Performing Arts School/Center, a DuPont-Manual magnet (shameless plug for my HS!)), technical trades, college prep… all available in the system which tried as much as it could to encourage each student into the course of study that best suited them. Jefferson County Schools also had (and still has) a very good relationship with most of the private schools in the area. A friend of mine who started at Ballard HS was interested in a religious course of study (he was interested in the priesthood), and JeffCo arranged for him to transfer to a Catholic school and set up a tuition assistance program (essentially, since he wasn’t in the public system, they credited a portion of the taxes his parents paid).

Schools should be allowed to go back to using what works for them, and be allowed to make arrangements for those students who are outside their framework through cooperative efforts. And there should be more emphasis on what kind of education each student is geared for (not everyone is suited for college). I’m a firm believer in abolishing tenure, and I think the Dept of Education was a bad idea from the start.

(wow, do I get long-winded or what?)


Comment by Lon Mead

You start talking education, and we all have an opinion, having once attended school. But I enjoy talking about it. My grandmother was a teacher, her sister was a a notable person in the New Jersey schools of the day. My grandfather was a college president, and my mother was a teacher. I started school in the 2nd grade. Spent two years in a one-room country school, 3 years in an(elementary school through 2 years of college) Episcopal school run by Episcopal nuns. 3 years in very small town school, then 1 year in a larger town high school. A varied experience. I think the school consolidation movement right after WWII was a mistake. We ended up with big schools, which can afford more amenities like good labs, but too many kids get lost in a big school. The federal government has no business in education at all. Departments of Education should be abolished. They just try to come up with new ideas to make themselves seem as important as the other college departments, but kids still need to learn the same old boring basics, and “new math,” managed to screw up a whole generation. Get rid of all departments of Education, make teachers major in a subject— anything that doesn’t end in “studies.”


Comment by The Elephant's Child

The first major evaluation was in 1969 by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University. It found that pre-schoolers who did make cognitive gains did not maintain them in early grades and that Head Start participants performed no better than children from similar backgrounds who had never been in the program.

Studies show that the positive impact of the programs evaporates by 3rd grade.


Comment by pino

You are absolutely correct. If we’re going to do something for the children, seems like we should do something that works.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

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