Head-start...or Is It?

In a recent editorial in the Washington Post, there was a bit of hand-wringing posturing regarding the Head-start program in the public schools, not that there’s even a slight chance that it will not be continued. Both the House and Senate have overwhelmingly voted to renew the program, and the prexy would be crazy not to sign on. Though it has been noted in other years that the children who attend Head-start and those not attending read at the same level by the third grade or so, if not before, this entitlement is here to stay.

Here is an excerpt from the University of Chicago News Office of 28 April 2005: “The 1940 Census is the first source of national data on educational attainment, and Neal points out that the black-white education gap among young adults fell steadily from 1940 to 1990. In 1990, however, black-white convergence in educational attainment stopped. ‘Among men and women ages 26 to 30 in 2000, the black-white educational attainment gap is slightly larger than the corresponding gap in 1990,’ he said.” Derek Neal was a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the author of a chapter, “Why Has Black-White Skill Convergence Stopped?” to be published later that year in the Handbook of Economics of Education.

Head-start came on line in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, so it had nothing to do with black children’s education prior to that time and for a time, at least, after that year, when there was a narrowing of the education gap vis-à-vis black and white youngsters. By contrast, those in the age-group mentioned – or at least thousands of them – were products of Head-start and represented a reversal of the trend. The question has to be raised, then, with regard to the effectiveness of Head-start, since the generations initiated into it seemed to do less well by young-adulthood than those preceding it.

It is well documented that earning power is directly tied to the extent of education achieved by the earner. This is part of an Associated Press article of 13 November 2007 that was also used by NPR and MSNBC: “In 2004, a typical black family had an income that was 58 percent of a typical white family's. In 1974, median black incomes were 63 percent of those of whites.” This represents a loss in earning power in the 30-year period of 8%, during the entire time Head-start was in operation. While one can’t necessarily blame Head-start for this circumstance, the question has to be raised regarding how effective its long-term value is.

Shelby Steele, a respected African-American educator and fellow at the Hoover Institution, said this in a 1999 speech: “Steve and Abigail Thernstrom, in their book America in Black and White, say the following: In 1981, white students whose parents had only a grade school education had higher SAT scores than blacks whose parents had graduate degrees. In 1995, nothing had changed. Blacks from families in the top income bracket of $70,000 and up were still behind whites in the lowest income bracket on both the verbal and the math sections of the SAT.” What part did Head-start play or not play, since it was on-line during this period?

Steele continued: “We would have expected that rising educational levels and the great expansion of the black middle class would have narrowed this gap, but they have had very little effect. In the SAT exam, for example, there was a slight narrowing of the gap throughout the 1980s, but it slowed to a stop in 1991 and, since then, the gap between whites and blacks in SAT scores has actually expanded.” High school graduates of 1983 would have constituted the children who might have begun head-start in 1965 (or more likely, 1966, or whenever the program was fully implemented), with graduates in succeeding years also Head-starters. Should it have been or be expected that this situation would not be the case if Head-start had been successful?

In a May 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Edward Guthmann said, “In fact, Steele argues, black oppression ended with the racial reforms of the 1960s. ‘Blacks live in a bubble because nobody ever tells us the truth. No one says, 'You're making too many excuses. Your kids can do better and ought to do better than they do now, and you ought to be more responsible about that.'" One wonders if Steele has fingered the problem and the solution.

This is neither a criticism of Head-start nor an endorsement. It is merely a suggestion that a hard look at the program is in order somewhere down the line. It’s too late for that now, of course, and too politically incorrect, in any case. Head-start probably does very little academically as a long-term matter, but it most likely does some good nutritionally and in helping most youngsters socially. The notion that it should be extended to four-year-olds is too off the wall even to consider. The schools cost enough now, without the inordinately labor-intensive addition of what would amount to operating child-care centers.