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Fixing Head Start: A Bone-Headed Idea

Publication Date: 2003-03-20

This column appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, March 8, 2003, titled "Bush prepares to fix Head Start, which isn't broken."

What a bone-headed idea. That's all I can think when I look at the federal government's plans to overhaul the Head Start programs across the country. No matter that for close to 40 years Head Start has been working just fine. The president and his advisers think it's time to change the focus of the program to literacy.

These are folks who are crazy about testing, so it's no surprise that they'd like 4-year-olds in the program tested to see what they've learned. Obviously, it's' been a long time since the president has been with a 4-year-old (and politicians who sometimes act like 4-year-olds don't count), otherwise he'd never have moved ahead with such a silly idea. People like to talk about the Terrible Twos. Ha! Four-year-olds win in being contrary and doing things their own way no matter what.

I also have to think that anyone who is pushing these ideas can't really be readers themselves. Otherwise they'd have to know that just by pushing a book in front of a child--especially a very young one--won't make him read.

Head Start, the preschool program for 900,000 low-income children, probably confuses the administration because without looking at it closely enough, it might not appear that the children are learning. I suppose it's the social service aspect of Head Start that they find troubling, although that's exactly why the program works. For example, in addition to getting children ready to learn, Head Start programs provide things such as meals and immunizations.

If you think providing meals is frivolous, I've got a little experiment for you. Try reading something when you are hungry, and I mean really hungry--say, you skipped lunch and only had a doughnut for breakfast. See how hard it is to keep your mind on the matter in front of you. Oftentimes, the children in Head Start are this hungry; sometimes their only real sustenance comes at these programs.

Maybe it's because of my keen interest in food, but in the Head Start programs I've seen, I've always liked the way the children had their meals. They set the tables themselves, then sit properly and mannerly to share a meal. Afterward, they clear the tables. I'd argue strongly that those children are gaining many valuable lessons at that table.

Head Start also often provides services for parents, which I am sure the great thinkers in the administration find unnecessary. They're wrong. If this guidance can help the parents better navigate through life, then the kids are the winners.

So Head Start programs work hard to provide children with a calm, safe environment where they learn in a relaxed setting. They are free to explore, to experiment. The flame of learning is being stoked there.

I wouldn't profess to be an expert at many things, but reading--that I know. Since I was young I have loved reading. I'm not happy unless I have a book I am reading. Books help me relax, they help me think, sometimes they help me escape the stress of everyday life.

But you don't become a reader because someone is standing over you saying YOU MUST READ. It won't happen. I think reading on demand is what happens too often these days, and that turns kids off. Reading a certain number of pages by this date, book reports on only this sort of book--these rigid rules don't make reading--and learning--seem inviting.

Head Start programs pave the way for the formal learning in our school systems. Mess around with it, and we're going to see a lot of kids traveling a rocky road to education.

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