Why Head Start doesn’t work

Head Start, the pre-elementary school development program for children with high needs, has come under scrutiny recently.  President Obama has asserted that some Head Start programs are deficient, and following his administrations “race to the top” initiative for public school funding, put in place a program by which some Head Start programs must in essence compete in order to stay in existence.

There two distinct and important points here that are often getting rolled into each other, but have distinct implications.  The first is the question of what deficient means, the second why Head Start does indeed fail in a number of longitudinal studies.

Operationalizing variables when studying the effectiveness of various social services in tremendously complex.  Generally, a researcher has a choice between using more time-limited outcome measures and having a better chance of statistically significant and reliable results, or between longer term measures and an often vastly diminished chance of any statistical certitude.  There are exceptions to this bind, but they tend to be found amongst simpler population and with less interesting research questions.  Following up on 5 and 10 year sobriety with former patients of a rehabilitation program, for instance, is (generally) much easier than measuring the effect of Head Start enrollment on high school graduation rates.  There are various confidentiality barrier that impede the latter, and families tend to move school districts which will mess with your sample such that the stats quickly become wonky, if not invalid.  This is especially true if the rehab program dealt with higher income folks, who seem to move around and change phone numbers less.

For this reason, I’m always very skeptical of systemic claims that a certain intervention doesn’t work, especially when social services and/or the public school system is concerned.  Often the supposedly supportive evidence isn’t as extensive as one is led to believe.

Unfortunately, there is a growing body of research which suggests that gains made in Head Start tend to not be especially durable once students transition to public school.  The reason (in my opinion) is first, that the structure of Head Start and level of intervention it provides is rarely replicated in further schooling, and second that the family, social, and cultural issues which tend to place a kid in Head Start are vast and intractable.  Asking a single program to make a substantive effect in such things is not realistic.

The best work of Head Start has little or nothing to do with traditional education, but rather with socialization and teaching parenting skills.  The hard fact is that Head Start tends to serve lower income families, and that for a variety of reason (which are beyond the present scope) the problems which Head Start is meant to address seem to be correlated fairly strongly with poverty: things like academic delays, poor emotion management, delayed social skills, and limited home support for education.  Head Start at it’s best provides a range of services to meet these challenges, and even if such supports were maintained after two years of Head Start, and even if parent participation is consistent (far from a given), it is unrealistic to think that trans-generational problems will be solved by one or two years of intervention, even at 4-5 hours a day.

The dirty little secret behind all of this is that public schools in America have been social service institutions for well over a century; at least since Dewey et al. saw them as a tool of melting-pot acculturation.  More and more social services are being met through the schools (outpatient therapy, psychiatric medication administration) because school is the one place by law children have to go.  There are (baring Family Service legal involvement) usually no consequences for skipping a therapy appointment, but there are (at least in theory) for keeping the kids out of school.  Ergo until public school is given credit and funding for all the things it has been doing for decades, it will continue to often do them poorly, and thus more exhaustive interventions like Head Start will continue to have limited effect.

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11 thoughts on “Why Head Start doesn’t work

  1. What about those children with gifted parents, who due to disability(ies) are in an economic bracket making them eligible for Head Start? What about head start ‘teacher’s who do not know the difference between they’re and their? who use …I was just gonna…or we was just going out for a drink at the fountain wasn’t we johnny? what about head start teachers who encourage the hit back or bite back theory? who have less social skills and breeding than the children attending the school? What about the teachers who do not correct such things in their students?

    And another issue..is it at all acceptable to lower expectations of behavior in order for such standards to be decided upon and taught in schools? School used to be about teaching a skill, reading, writing, and math. Now, everyone seems very much concerned with fitting in, esteem and NEVER EVER making a person feel like they did anything wrong. I think that this shift is most erroneous. It is creating uneducated adults who are validated as being such, without evidence.

    I DO see valid underpinnings within what you wrote about statistical data sets and collection and the validity of the results. And I think that I can partly see past my own ELISA GOES BOOM, reaction to stereotype creation that perhaps was meant to undo other stereotypes. I think that this entire discussion is very important. Thanks for the post.

    1. Elisa, as a public school teacher, I have never seen the kind of “feel-goodery” (great Arrested Development phrase!) that you mention in action. That is not to say that such places do not exist, but my sense is that this unrepresentative fiction has been sensationalized by a media groups whose interests lie less in truths and more in profits.

      In fact, most public schools struggle to be anything but a highly competitive environments assessing deficits rather than achievements. Research has clearly demonstrated that this has dramatically adverse effects upon children’s psychology and teaches them (lower-income students especially, who have already been assess as deficient by the system) that failure is inevitable and that effort achieves little.

      Dave, I truly appreciate your last point. Public school funding is not a matter of simply paying teachers better (though, that would be nice), but a recognition of the vast social role that schools play in the cognitive, social, and psychological development of children. For good or ill, the problems social, economic, racial, and beyond of the U. S. are mediated through its public school system. It is both a tragedy and an opportunity.

  2. Excellent essay. The headline is a bit misleading, but the writing makes up for it.

    I think you bring up two very good points. The first is that social science is messy. The same thing could be said for most medical science (other than studies on mice or other creatures). The reason is obvious: we can’t create a completely clean environment. We could sit people down, feed one group suspected carcinogens while leaving the other group alone, but that is hardly ethical. That is why it took a long time to determine that smoking really was bad for people. With all of the correlation studies, you have to try and isolate other factors, which can be very difficult. Add the fact that people vary quite a bit (which is why some people can smoke their entire adult lives and still to be old and relatively healthy) and drawing conclusions about behavior or public policy becomes very difficult.

    Your last paragraph is very important, and I’ve heard that point raised by educators as well.

    I’m not sure it is a bad thing, but it must be acknowledged. It may be cheapest and easiest to deal with these problems at the school. Creating a separate lunch program outside the schools would free the schools from worrying about that, but might not be nearly as effective in reducing childhood malnutrition. The same goes for many of the functions that schools provide. It is tempting to just say “let the schools focus on teaching and solve the other problems somewhere else” but where? If a kid acts up in class, the teacher should be able to send that kid somewhere else (so as not to disturb the other students). If there is no one who is capable of at least handling the initial situation (triage, if you will) then things get a lot more costly and expensive.

    I think we face a few problems in understanding that this essay addresses. One is that we don’t acknowledge the fact that schools are asked to solve many of societies problems. The other is that teachers by themselves can’t make up for a rough environment. The biggest, in my mind, is that paying for social services is often cheaper than not paying for them. Studies have shown that as well. In other words, if you want to reduce crime, then stiffer sentences will do it, but it is an extremely expensive way to do it. This is why, even if Head Start has very little effect on a students ultimate success in life, it is probably worth it. At worse, it will be a waste of a tiny, tiny bit of money. But if it helps, then we all benefit.

  3. Perceived Aims of Public School:
    1) To make good people 2) To make good citizens 3) To make each person his or her personal best.
    True Aims of Public School
    1) Establish fixed habits of reaction to authority.
    2) Make children as alike and predictable as possible.
    3) Determine (mathematically and anecdotally) each student’s proper social role. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” sort and train children only so far as their role in the social machine merits.

    1. Good points. Trying to fix social problems with schools has a couple of problems associated with it. First teachers aren’t trained for that and their aren’t going to be enough school counselors to really cover all the problems.
      Second if we tried to change schools to deal with all the social problems there would be immediate resistance. The line would go something like this “The schools job is to teach my kids the three R’s not raise them for me.”

  4. I have a child in Head Start. In my community, it’s the only preschool. Has anyone quantified the benefits to families of simply having free preschool for low-income families, rather than the educational practices of Head Start specifically? I imagine much of the benefit comes from allowing parents to go to work while leaving their kid in a healthy and appropriate setting. But that wouldn’t show up in these studies.

    Also, how does this mesh with studies I’ve seen saying that preschool attendance is a positive for future life education/earnings potential?

    Is Head Start worse than other preschools serving similar populations? Or is it simply not any better?

    Are outcomes as good with no preschool at all?

    1. My suspicion is that Head Start specifically, to say nothing of preschool in general, is sufficiently heterogenous that meaningful generalizations are deeply problematic. The benefits of accelerated socialization and education/play are unquestioned (whether they occur at home or in a school environment), the problem seems largely to be continuing these things once kids are put into a school system which is obligated to treat growth less holistically.

  5. Schools can’t replace healthy families no matter how well funded. Healthy families lead to success no matter what educational format is used fo the kids. Can we fix the family with social services?

    I mostly agree with James on the current de-facto role of schools in our society.

    1. I’m not sure social services can do much to fix families. It’s an uphill road, to put it mildly. I’m not sure what other single thing works any better.

      1. One thing is….who gets to define what is a healthy family? Does one definition even work? If one then shifts to allow for this difference, how can there be one place, one agency, one worker that magically knows the right formula? Can a worker step outside of the textbook shoulds and work with functional outcomes (again a qualitative measure). Perhaps moving away from using the word ‘fix’, and actually meaning to avoid the use and actions to ‘fix’, one might simply offer tools, and teach and explain tools. One could then grab and use tools that are/were effective for clients and add them to the overall theraputic toolbox of options.

        1. Agreed, and this gets at the pernicious aspect of social services James talks about above. A primitive but functional definition we use is that so long as no one is getting arrested or pregnant, it’s not too bad.

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