25 April 2012
When Jenifer Stefano, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania, was on Sean Hannity’s “Great American Panel” (Fox TV) with commentator Bob Beckel, Beckel did something unusual: He lost his temper and began using profanity while insulting her. He was apparently unaware that his mike was live. “Panel” is not the kind of show where the audience was expecting that .
What would cause a veteran broadcast journalist to get so upset as to make such an elementary mistake? As Stefano tells it,
I told Bob about a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report released in January 2010 called the “Head Start Impact Study.” While the report acknowledges that four-year-olds enrolled in Head Start showed modest short-term gains in some subject areas as a result of the program, those gains disappeared after a few years, and “no significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year.”
In fact, according to University of Maryland professors Douglas Besharov and Douglas Call, children who are enrolled in normal day care programs receive the same educational benefits as children enrolled in Head Start, and for less than half the cost ($9,500 a year per child vs. $22,600 a year per child).
Head Start, a venerable program dating from 1965, sought to improve the learning strategies of poor and minority children by providing enrichments they were probably not getting at home. Beckel’s outburst certainly focused attention on the failure, but didn’t shed any further light.
Why doesn’t the program achieve lasting gains? Besharov and Call offer:
The achievement gap stems from many sources, including historical discrimination, the abysmal condition of many schools serving low-income children and the child-rearing styles of many poor families.
There is not much one can do about historical discrimination; we can only act in the present day. As far as the abysmal schools are concerned, I pointed out two Sundays ago, public schools in poor neighborhoods are not easily reformable because everyone involved is part of the government’s constituency. Unreformable schools are, of course, much worse in a poor neighborhood than a well-to-do one because the poor parents’ social power is so much less, in relation to all the other players.
Now, what about “the child-rearing styles of many poor families”? Why doesn’t supplementing the child’s experiences with an enrichment program make any difference? Let me offer a couple of thoughts, based on experience.
Low-income parents must often deal with disruptions and disorders that they did not cause. Mom comes home to find an eviction notice on the door (landlord is renovating), and in the turmoil of moving, the child’s Christmas puppy must be given away. Then a neighbor’s kitchen fire forces her and her son out of their next apartment while repairs are made, and into a shelter, where the boy learns far more about the down-and-out lifestyle than is good for him. Besides all that, some low income people (just like other people) make choices that lead to further disorder. But the costs are much greater for them. An early childhood enrichment program will probably not overcome the effects of these problems on the boy. The only change that would really help him would be a general absence of disruption and disorder, leaving him free to focus on normal “kid” issues. But that is precisely the benefit that Mom can’t give him.
Second, many low-income mothers do not read, and do not watch documentaries or listen to public affairs on radio, even during elections or public crises. Their children grow up with media as entertainment, not instruction. Without much experience of media as a learning tool, a child may not grasp how getting A’s in science means getting a decent job some day. He doesn’t lack the intelligence to understand the relationship, but he has no role models from his home life that help him apply it to himself.
Head Start imposes a value system for a short period that is false to the environment in which the student really grows up, an environment in which academic achievement is not sought or rewarded. Rather than be surprised that its effect quickly wears off, we should rather be surprised if it didn’t. Hit and run is not a method of cultural change.
One change that might help, if it is possible, is a revival of parochial and other church schools. They can offer a structure and a culture, prevent disorder, provide good role models, and minimize contact with bad ones. It’s only an opportunity, and can easily be corrupted. But at least such schools do not isolate low-income students from other students. Family beliefs, not poverty, explain why students attend the school. In that environment, the students who live in poverty may be less likely to develop a cohesive, low-achievement culture at odds with their own best interests. At any rate, it will last for at least a decade, not a year, so there is some chance of real formative influence.