Our View: Head Start: Improve it, don't scrap it
The federal Head Start program offers clear and valuable benefits to low-income youth and their families. We should stick with the goal, though it can't hurt to consider the technique and the measures of success.
We worry that Head Start becomes a convenient criticism for skeptics: It's not like there is a lot of affluence connected with the program and it's a safe bet there won't be much push back. Despite serving more than 30 million low-income preschool children since 1965, according to program data, critics latch onto the fact it cost $7.6 billion in 2011 ($913 million in California); and they're obsessing with data that suggests that former Head Start students tested later in grade school seem to have lost any advantage the pre-school program afforded them.
We're not suggesting it isn't prudent and responsible for taxpayers and government officials to look critically at any budget item to make sure we're getting the biggest bang for the buck. It's particularly crucial with something as important as early-childhood education. In fact, we believe that with ever-tightening government budgets, more programs should receive this type of fiscal examination.
Still, it's difficult to put a price tag on something like laying a foundation for a student's future.
Here, we give credence to notions like that of Joan Davidson, director at the Live Oak Head Start, who recently said studies' results vary and that it's more effective to evaluate based on observations than standardized tests. Much like state-mandated assessments and evaluations at later grade levels, we're skeptical about how effective these methods are in gauging every student's potential and skill set.
Take, for example, the success of children like Claudia Barajas' son. It can't help but put a smile on your face. (We reported on her son's situation in a story recently about local Head Start programs.) The boy "really changed drastically" since enrolling in the program last year with a speech delay, Barajas said. With 105,834 children enrolled in the program in California in 2011, there are likely more stories like that to be told.
A diverse and mostly working-class community like Yuba-Sutter needs services like Head Start more than some other areas do, and ensuring children are ready for learning is a community responsibility and investment we should take seriously.
The 2011 numbers showed 292 children involved in the program in Yuba County and 280 in Sutter County. One has to assume most of them wouldn't attend preschool or other early-childhood functions without Head Start's availability.
Education rhetoric usually focuses on preparing educated and trained students for the workforce so they are ready to contribute to society. A youth, however, will likely never get to that point if they enroll in elementary school without basic speaking and reading skills. Maybe testing shows that a year or two later, the Head Start students are at no particular advantage compared to other students … we're not sure what to make of the assertion, no matter how correct it is. Wasn't the point to get the kids ready for kindergarten, instead of putting them ahead of other kids?
Maybe Head Start, as presently programmed, isn't the be all and end all to local and national early-childhood education. But it's in place and it's doing something; maybe it can be improved. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released data in the fall ranking the United States 28 out of 38 developed countries worldwide in early education. Again, take the rating for what it's worth, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence backing up the numbers.
So look for ways to make Head Start even more effective and more widely available to the kids who wouldn't otherwise be ready to participate in learning.
Just don't get so het up about criticizing the program that we (almost literally) throw the baby out with the bath water.