Preschool Education Reform in America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation (or What I Learned from Fox Business News about Preschool)

Topic: Head Start programs, Preschool

I think I saw the “Borat” guy again on TV last night (Fox Business News). He cracks me up. This time he called himself “Stossel.” His fake reporter routine never gets old. You would think after the movie everyone would recognize him, even with the name change, or that his corkscrew logic and misinterpretations would tip people off. Last night he told the audience: “government schools” are basically jailing American children, students in Kazakhstan outscore those in the U.S., and highly-quality private education can be bought for a $1. How can we get U.S. of A. children out of jail he asked? His answer: close government schools, cut taxes, and have poor children go to charity schools, oh, and throw the unions down the well. Stossel thinks this would have happened except that some guy in Massachusetts tricked people into creating government schools (don’t look at Massachusetts test scores in the international test comparison studies, it messes up the argument). OK, he said, people probably won’t do that, but let’s have competition, that will solve all our educational problems anyway.

Stossel also jumped on the latest Head Start national impact study to report that taxpayers have gotten nothing from the $165 billion spent on that program over 40 years. That is not what the study finds, but he’s not about to acknowledge that children and taxpayers may have gotten something for their money, if less than they hoped. Nor is he going to report that Head Start’s test score gains compare poorly with those of government preschools that employ well-paid, highly educated teachers. That’s not how this fake reporter thing works. Instead, he managed to get the National Head Start Association’s Ron Herndon to blame public school failure for the fact that comparison children catch up to those who went to Head Start by the end of kindergarten. Never mind that the study found public kindergarten accelerated learning rates in literacy and math and gave enough of a boost to all of the children to eliminate Head Start’s modest gains.

The key to the fake reporter shtick is to take something that makes sense—like competition leads to better results—and then step by step distort things until you end up with a ridiculous, if not downright offensive conclusion. Competition is a good idea, and American public schools historically engaged in a great deal of competition. I recommend William Fischel’s recent book Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts (University of Chicago Press) to anyone who wants to learn how we got public schools and why local school districts are valuable. Along the way you can learn why we have a summer vacation, which has nothing to do with our agrarian past. My reading of the book suggests that breaking up large urban districts into smaller neighborhood districts would be a much better way to create competition than vouchers (they won’t work, read the book).

The preschool world could take the lead from New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program and encourage school districts to contract with multiple private providers for as many students as parents choose to send to them, so long as the providers meet high standards for teaching and learning. In small districts this might be unnecessary and inefficient, but in large districts there could be considerable improvements in preschool education. Head Start should consider using competition in a similar way. To facilitate competition Head Start should:
• Prune the Head Start Performance Standards down to a very small list to give programs more freedom to innovate;
• Focus more on measuring learning and teaching using external as well as internal observers and with grantees implementing a continuous improvement cycle;
• Give parents information on provider performance on learning and teaching;
• Grantees, at least in densely populated areas, should contract with private providers who compete to serve Head Start parents and children; and
• Fire programs that don’t perform (however, giving parents information on learning and teaching is likely to make that rare).

Honestly, it is not as ridiculous as that guy on Fox, whoever he really is, made it sound. It is not a panacea, but it would help us provide children with the education they deserve.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

1 Comment

  1. There are 3,358 Head Start Performance Standards, over 7 content areas and 5 systems area.The federal review that is done triennially covers anywhere from 900-1500 of them. one of our non-compliances this year was that we did not document our monitoring of the monitoring that my directors at 5 sites do with their staff! Their data is computer-based, so they sit with the staff and scroll through the reports and summaries – noting work. No, it wasn’t on paper, and that is what we got cited for. Many of the standards are nice, but do not have anything directly to do with child educational outcomes. Having designed 3 state-wide RFPs in Illinois, I can even say how to trim and streamline this program so it is accessible, and easy to operate. Please – some one do something!