In the Arena

More on Head Start

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I’ve received quite a few responses to last week’s print column about Head Start. In the next print edition, you’ll see responses from HHS Secretary Katherine Sibelius and others defending the program–even though none dispute the results of the HHS study, which shows it doesn’t work. Some individuals vehemently defend the Head Start centers that their children attend, which is understandable. But there have also been letters from teachers who’ve participated in the program and have been totally frustrated by the incompetence and corruption of the Community Action Programs that disburse the funds. Here’s an example from a reader, and former Head Start teacher, named Ian Mackey:

I read your article today about the imminent demise of Head Start. Immediately, I felt as if your pen had somehow channeled all of my pain, frustration, anger, and predictions from the past year. You could not have summed up any more neatly the disaster of a program that consumed the most recent year of my life.

In 2010 I was hired as a Lead Teacher at Head Start. A year was all I could muster. The downright disgusting way in which the program’s resources and people were treated left me searching for a way out shortly after I arrived. For a period of time, a few months or so, I gave it my all – pieces of independent thought and reasoning that I proposed could help the program, and still add up under its policies. But new thinking was not allowed – actually no thinking was allowed – as I soon found out, and I regrettably moved on to a more tolerable workplace.

There are teachers at Head Start and there are those who punch a clock. There are those interested in continuing education and debate, and eager to discuss new methods, practices, and ideas, with or without accepting them. Then there are those who embody the stereotype of why too many enter the field. There are those who show up to earn a check, who produce no results, who view teaching as a job rather than a lifetime commitment to making sure the next generation is better off than we are.

One might presume the same could be said about our public schools, but here’s the difference – trust. Public school teachers are granted tenure (like it or not). Public school teachers have a salary. Public school teachers, generally, have the faith and backing of administrators, the government, and the public. Public schools also face much greater exposure in our society, and thus are held to a higher standard. And even if gripes about teachers are easy to come by, efforts by principals, superintendents, and school boards who are popularly elected, generally move our schools toward the direction of progress. Despite its flaws, few in government will admit to proposing cuts to public education, or getting rid of teachers. Strikingly, in 2010 Gallup found that 78% of public school parents ‘trusted the men and women who were teaching their children.’ There’s one reason for this, I believe, and it’s (not surprisingly) the value of education.

How can a positive value be placed on the education of a youngster in Head Start when “teachers” in the program place no value on their own education? Most Head Start teachers, the vast majority in my experience anyway, lack a four-year degree in any field. Mine happens to be in early childhood education. Congress, to its credit, passed a mandate that will require Lead Teachers in the program to have four-year degrees in education, but still they need not be state-certified teachers by passing a written exam. Why should they be salaried? Why should they be granted autonomy? Why should they be trusted? There’s no requirement in the program that meets the softest definition of professionalism, and what’s to respect in a program that so desperately lacks professionalism?

A greater injustice exists, however, in the management of the program. The supervisors, the managers, the directors, who in my case were people in charge of 500 plus employees and millions of dollars – have no requirement for degrees or knowledge in education, in human management, or in finance. These positions are filled, from my experience, solely through a friendship network. There’s no list of criteria on which to rely. If an employee’s relationship is cozy enough with a supervisor he or she is promoted, with no other qualifications taken into account. And plenty are promoted to powerful positions that manage our tax dollars. In most workplaces this type of egregious and shameful employment strategy would never fly. But in Head Start, who’s watching? The insane degree to which both financial and human capital is squandered in this organization is beyond comprehension, and therefore beyond expression. But one thing can be said: Those at the top are guilty of the gravest malfeasance for not only wasting our resources, but also simultaneously shortchanging our children’s future.

I’ve shared your article, Joe, with several past and present Head Start employees who feel the same as I do. Plenty of them have far more life experience, far more education, and far more credibility than I. Some of them have moved on, as I have, to place energy in a less futile cause, and some are still there – for a number of reasons. In any event, here’s the bottom line – you’re right. And while I can only offer one man’s opinion, the degree to which your conclusions match my experience and the experience of other colleagues in the program are accurate, and worth sharing. Like most of the public, I support the concept of Head Start. In this regard, your goal and mine for the program may not be the same, but your analysis of the situation as it is, is unerring. We’ve got to take care of our children, but Head Start simply is not working.

Actually, I agree with Ian: Head Start would be a valuable program, well worth keeping, if it were run well. But it’s difficult to break past the special interests who now control the $7 billion spent annually. The Obama Administration is making an effort at reform–but a total overhaul is needed.