Head Start to Nowhere

, Malcolm A. Kline, 3 Comments

At its best, the record on the 40-year-old federal Head Start program was mixed. Now, the middle-aged government program is becoming downright dangerous, according to Karen Effrem, a director of EdWatch.org.

“We’ve had 20 million children go through Head Start at a cost of $50 billion and we’ve had 600 studies of the program,” Dr. Effrem, a Minnesota pediatrician, pointed out on the last broadcast of Accuracy in Academia’s Campus Report. Those studies, Dr. Effrem notes, show that when children do show progress in the program, as measured by the U. S. Department of Education, those gains disappear after the first year of primary school.

Aimed at three- and four-year-olds, Head Start is a creation of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Moreover, many of the “gains” recorded in Head Start are psychosocial rather than cognitive so that children in the program are polled rather than tested.

On the one hand, there are the Head Start Child Outcome Framework standards on Math. These standards urge teachers to make sure that the student “demonstrates increasing interest and awareness of numbers and counting as a means for solving problems and determining quantity” and “develops increased abilities to combine, separate and name ‘how many’ concrete objects.”

But the guidelines for Head Start, whose originator specialized in “the ecology of human development” emphasize the “whole child.” Thus, the “Emotional Development” section of the Head Start Outcomes urge that the child “shows progress in expressing feelings, needs and opinions in difficult situations without harming themselves, others or property” and “demonstrate increasing competency in recognizing and describing own emotions.”

And, the “Self-Concept” section urges the teacher to see that the child “begins to develop and express awareness of self in terms of specific abilities, characteristics and preferences” and “develops ability to identify personal characteristics including gender and family composition.” How, specifically, do children achieve these ends? By playing witches, filling in the details on anatomical drawings and playing with “anatomically correct dolls,” according to Dr. Effrem.

Even at its inception in 1965, Dr. Effrem says, the program included an invasive component that provided for home visits to the households of children in Head Start. A parent herself, Dr. Effrem became concerned about Head Start when she saw how bureaucrats were trying to implement it in her home state.

“In Minnesota, they tried to push through these Early Childhood Standards that stressed gender identity and turning young children into activists,” Dr. Effrem remembers. When parents got suspicious and started asking questions, public officials dropped the plan.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.