Preschool with a purpose

Head Start, a product of the "community control" mania of the '60s, never produced lasting educational gains for kids, and it needs a new focus on learning.

Published October 27, 2000 7:56PM (EDT)

The flap that broke out earlier this week over whether or not Texas schools had improved relative to the rest of the country during the period that George W. Bush has been governor proves not only that education is one of the few really potent issues in this year's presidential campaign, but also that the two sides have significantly converged on the basic issues.

Notice that the Gore campaign didn't say, "The Texas schools are failing because Bush is obsessed with basic skills and testing." Al Gore also believes in basic skills and testing. Nor, on the other hand, has Bush said, "Our success in Texas proves that the federal Department of Education is a collossal waste of money." Bush not only wants to retain the department, long a conservative bugbear, but to substantially increase federal spending on the schools. With the notable exception of school vouchers, education has largely ceased to be the ideologically riven issue -- at least at the level of politics -- that it was only a few years ago.

A striking case in point is Bush's proposal to reform Head Start. Republicans have traditionally been uneasy about this Great Society innovation, though they've never succeeded in eliminating it. But Bush wants to improve Head Start, not get rid of it or even reduce its current funding of $5.2 billion a year. In the first presidential debate, he proposed that Head Start's mission be changed to focus explicitly on reading and reading readiness. Bush would require individual Head Start programs to adopt one of several model curricula, and would underline the new sense of academic purpose by transferring control of the program from the Department of Health and Human Services to ... the Department of Education.

Bush's proposal reflects not an ideological or cultural critique of Head Start but a longstanding recognition of the program's shortcomings. And he's right on this issue. Head Start was not designed to do what we expect and need it to do now, which is to compensate for the academic or cognitive disadvantage of impoverished children. Head Start was the product of the advanced thinking of a very different era. In 1964, when Sargent Shriver, the head of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity, decided to create a preschool program for the disadvantaged, he turned to his family pediatrician, Dr. Robert Cooke, an expert on the link between retardation and health and nutrition. And in internal debates between psychologists and medical and mental health officials on the one hand, and early childhood education experts on the other, it was the advocates of an educational model for Head Start who lost out.

Edward Zigler, a Yale child psychologist who was one of Head Start's shaping influences as well as an early director of the program, has described this process in "Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment," a memoir he co-wrote with Susan Muenchow. Zigler notes proudly that the panel of experts who designed Head Start agreed that the program's most important objective was "improving the child's health."

Only one of the seven objectives involved enhancing "conceptual and verbal skills." Zigler and his colleagues in child psychology believed strongly that preschool children would be damaged by a more explicitly cognitive focus. A whole anti-academic literature grew up at the time, with ominous titles like "The Hurried Child."

It wasn't only child development theory but the politics of the age that worked against a sense of academic purpose for Head Start. The program was designed as an experiment in community control. Richard Boone, Shriver's head of policy development and the author of the phrase "maximum feasible participation," suggested that Head Start be controlled not by experts but by parents and "the community." This meant that each program would be a world of its own, responsive to the concerns, and to the political preoccupations, of a local board.

What's more, as Zigler notes, officials of the OEO's Community Action Program were often scornful of Head Start's academic experts. And so, not surprisingly, Head Start turned out to be pretty good at what it purported to do -- providing children with vaccinations and free meals and providing their parents with jobs -- and not very good at what it hadn't set out to do. Right from the start, large-scale studies, including studies carried out by some of the people who had been responsible for creating the program, found that children in Head Start programs reached school with an academic advantage over similar children who had not been enrolled in Head Start -- but that the effect quickly faded to zero.

Some studies found modest positive effects on attendance or behavior. On the other hand, a 1985 study by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that "in the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged students who did not attend Head Start."

Head Start had a remarkable record of political survival, especially considering the expert consensus that it wasn't doing much good. What the program always had in its favor was beautiful, camera-ready imagery -- little black kids sitting in a circle, smiling and singing. Head Start lasted because even hardhearted Republicans who considered ketchup a vegetable couldn't see the percentage in knocking the program. Its privileged status, in turn, made it largely immune to criticism and even self-criticism. Edmund Gordon, Head Start's first research director and a colleague of Zigler's at Yale, has said, "If the program hadn't had such political attractiveness, it would have forced us to slow down and examine it more carefully."

And what would they have suggested if they had scrutinized the results? Perhaps they would have said that Head Start needs to be a much more intensive intervention -- that it needs to start from birth, and work with children more hours in the day and more days in the year. The few preschool programs that do so produce much larger academic gains.

But more of the same won't solve the problem: The best preschool programs are both comprehensive and academically purposeful. Experts on preschool have recently begun to pay attention to the French école maternelle, an all-day, year-round school staffed by professionals and guided by a coherent academic program. In "The Schools We Need," the educational reformer E.D. Hirsch notes that disadvantaged French children who have begun école maternelle at age 2 are doing just as well by sixth or seventh grade as middle-class kids who put off preschool until age 4. Hirsch concludes that Head Start's problems have to do with "the lack of a coherent approach to content," which he traces to a general hostility to academic content among the progressives who have controlled educational policy in this country over the last 40 years.

Many liberals have stopped defending the bastion of progressive pedagogy; there are signs of a post-ideological coalescence around the idea of content and standards. But Head Start is itself a bastion; and liberal opinion may not yet be prepared to accept the program's failures. In a recent article in Salon, Bruce Shapiro declared that "decades of studies" proved Head Start's "singular effectiveness," and that by proposing to reform the program Gov. Bush had "declared war on the nation's most successful vehicle for early childhood education." Shapiro relied for his views on Ed Zigler, who said that he had been "stunned" to hear Bush's proposal. Zigler was particularly exercised about Bush's plan to abridge parental and community control by insisting on academic accountability from individual Head Start programs.

What can one say about this impulse? First, that it is hard to see how it helps children to insist that Head Start should remain as it is. Second, clearly "local control" has lost the moral force it had in the 1960s -- or at least it should have. What is the value of local control if it precludes creating the kind of standards that will help Head Start to realize its promise? And so one is left with the irony of liberals trying to ward off federal oversight when it is Republicans, rather than Democrats, who want to do the overseeing.

One can, on the other hand, fault Bush for inconsistency, and perhaps even for hypocrisy. Bush generally attacks Al Gore for wanting to impose his own vision of school reform on local districts; in this one case, Bush apparently sees the wisdom of federal mandates. That is a contradiction, but all it means is that Bush is right in the case of Head Start, and wrong when it comes to school reform: We have made too much of the right of localities to raise children in their own chosen brand of ignorance, and if Bush had more courage on the subject he would come out in favor of national standards and even a national curriculum. But it's better to be inconsistent than altogether wrong.

By James Traub

James Traub is a New York writer and contributor to the New York Times Magazine.

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