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Broken Promises: What Head Start Should Have Been But Wasn’t

Written by Bruce Deitrick Price

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This is the story of an intentionally wasted opportunity.

failing-gradePeople thought Head Start meant jump start. Surely the idea was to take children from disadvantaged backgrounds and fill their heads with all the information that middle and upper-class kids learn around the house. These poor and minority kids would then be up to speed. Quickly. That’s the jump start everybody imagined was being proposed here.

But that is not what the program did. Head Start was entirely busy work. It was not intellectually or cognitively ambitious.

FoxNews.com recently reported: “Head Start is an $8 billion per year federal preschool program, designed to improve the kindergarten readiness of low-income children. Since its inception in 1965, taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on the program. But HHS’ latest Head Start Impact Study found taxpayers aren’t getting a good return on this ‘investment.’ According to the congressionally-mandated report, Head Start has little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of its participants. In fact, on a few measures, access to the program actually produced negative effects.”

A parent left this comment on an internet forum: “I remember when I sent my son to Head Start some 18 years back. I got so frustrated because they taught nothing useful. They treated the children as though they were RETARDED. When I asked them about what the upcoming curriculum was, this is what I was told: They were going to be studying shapes and would be spending a week doing so--PER SHAPE. A week studying the circle, a week on the square and so on.”

Cynics would say that Head Start’s actual goals were: provide cheap daycare; create jobs for out-of-work teachers and administrators; undermine the traditional family; and channel funds to bureaucrats and professors throughout the Education Establishment.   

In sum, Head Start was uninspired, unproductive, and more than a little dishonest. Strictly speaking, Head Start was a failure because it aimed low.

But why? Because that’s what our Education Establishment is comfortable with. It puts weak demands on children, and then celebrates mediocrity as success. 

Imagine for a moment that Head Start had done what people hoped, that is, engage in every kind of acceleration and enrichment. What might be the consequences?

Safe to say, there would have been a ripple effect, a domino effect, all the way up through the system. Kids coming into first, second, and third grades would be superior. Elementary and middle schools would have to jump to another gear in order to deal with these more cognitively developed kids.

Arguably, this is the last thing our Education Establishment wanted. Their pattern, ever since the time of John Dewey, was to aim for a comfortably average kid. So they dumbed down Head Start precisely as they dumbed down all of public school education for the last 75 years. Head Start illuminates that pattern. 

In sum, Head Start was a cute new name but otherwise the same old, same old. If anyone seriously wanted a qualitative leap, they would have to bring in new people at the top, and try new ideas. 

Let’s imagine what Head Start would look like had it done all the things people were hoping for. There are several prototypes to give us the basic plan. 

First of all, everything Maria Montessori did with her disadvantaged kids in Italy more than 100 years ago is valid today. She believed in a multi-sensory approach, with lots of play and games. Meanwhile, classical academies are springing up. They use methods and theories first developed in Greek and Roman civilizations and then, in some schools, modified by medieval Christian influences. 

In both cases, you see an animated educational environment. Kids are kept in motion. There’s a lot of singing, chanting, and memorization. The crucial ingredient in both types of schools, and any good school, is that everybody knows why they’re there: kids are to be educated as much as possible, as quickly as possible. You do this by having them swim in a sea of knowledge.

For the sake of comparison, here is the blueprint for a genuine Head Start and subsequent grades. Let’s suppose a six-hour day, 9-3. The ideal time on any one subject is about 30 minutes. (For a child that’s a long time, like an hour or two for a middle-aged person.) So we would have 12 half-hour periods that might be filled like this (of course, in any order):

  1.   Geography; Maps; Diagrams 
  2.   General Science; Animals; Machines
  3.   Reading; Stories
  4.   Rest
  5.   Arithmetic
  6.   Lunch
  7.   Music; Singing
  8.   History
  9.   Recess; Sports 
  10.   Miscellaneous; Field Trips (which could be a walk to a favorite tree) 
  11.   Current Events; Show & Tell
  12.   Art; Drawing; Building Models 

Doesn’t that sound like a good day? Wouldn’t you want to go to a school like that? Wouldn’t you want your kids to go to a school like that?

There is no need for lesson plans intended to fill every minute. On the contrary, teachers would focus on a few main bits of information in each period (e.g., “George Washington was the first president of the United States”). Such facts could be mixed in with anything else the teacher thinks helpful--a holiday, something in the news, the weather, a video, a question asked by a student. Whatever was taught one day would be taught again, weeks or months later, in different contexts.  

The goal is to keep things light, lively, and memorable. Everyone has fun. Learning is inevitable.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org

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