Fallacy I: Head Start a 'Successful Experiment'

LINDA SEEBACH

February 28, 1993|By LINDA SEEBACH

Head Start is a waste of time and money, and a great man people associated with the program have known that for a long time.

In 1985, the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed 20 years of Head Start research and concluded that by the end of the second year after children left the program, there were no educationally meaningful differences between Head Start children and non-Head Start children.

No doubt I'll get lots of tearful and passionate letters from grateful parents whose children were in Head Start and did well. What is lacking is persuasive evidence that these two facts are related. Sick people often get better when they are treated with a placebo, because a doctor tells them it is a powerful medicine.

Head Start is an educational placebo.

I'm not even talking about the investigations related to poor management and misspent money in the program in Los Angeles County. No, I'm talking about the whole idea of Head Start, as it has been oversold to a trusting public since the summer of 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson put his wife, Lady Bird, in charge.

"The Head Start idea has such hope and challenge," the first lady gushed to her diary. "Maybe I could help focus public attention in a favorable way on some aspects of Lyndon's poverty program."

That's about all the focus Head Start ever had. The original push came from Sargent Shriver, who succumbed to a brief infatuation with the theory that short, intensive exposure to intellectual stimulation could raise children's IQs significantly.

That sort of naive environmentalism was much in vogue during the '60s, according to Edward Zigler, who served on the planning committee for the program and later became the first director of the Office of Child Development under President Nixon. Dr. Zigler recently has published a self-serving memoir about the program, immodestly titled "Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment."

The program's chief success seems to be in surviving in the absence of any good reason why it should. The first major research on Head Start, a massive study performed for the government's budget watchdogs by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University, showed the program wasn't doing what it had been designed to do -- and that was in 1969.

But government programs are hard to kill, and even criticizing motherhood-and-apple pie programs such as Head Start is dangerous. What politician wants to be accused of indifference to the welfare of children, especially poor and disadvantaged children? So Presidents Reagan and Bush increased spending for Head Start by nearly 70 percent -- after inflation -- from 1981 to 1992, to more than $2 billion. Then-candidate Bill Clinton upped the ante, tossing into the campaign pot a promise to spend $5 billion a year for full funding of Head Start.

Perhaps Mr. Clinton really does think the program is worthwhile. It's a pet project of the Children's Defense Fund, formerly headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton. But other supporters have been less than candid.

In his weekly vanity editorial, run as a paid ad in various publications, president Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers finally came clean about Head Start, past and future.

"Many of us saw its shortcomings, but we were reluctant to open up the issue, to raise doubts," he wrote. A large number of programs are of poor quality, and staffed with inexperienced employees, Mr. Shanker said. He questioned whether "mechanically pouring money into the existing program" is the best way to expand it to all eligible children. Only about 30 percent of eligible children participate.

"A massive expansion will certainly be accompanied by massive deterioration," Mr. Shanker said.

His proposed cure: "offer all-day and all-year Head Start to all children." In other words, it doesn't work so let's do more of it.

Head Start proponents tout it as an investment, saying that money spent on the program means less spent later on social pathology. That argument has been demolished by a Cato Institute study by John Hood, who points out that the few intervention programs that have shown some positive effects aren't part of Head Start, and are both more extensive and more costly.

I wouldn't begrudge the money being spent if I thought it were doing some good. But it isn't, and when people are sick, relying on placebos instead of effective medicine can be very damaging to their chances for real recovery.

L Linda Seebach is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

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