Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain Wrong on Head Start

John McCain's nose grew a bit longer last night during the final presidential debate as he continued trying to tar Barack Obama with the same tired accusations. But he also managed to get in a new falsehood: that Head Start is a failure.

McCain asserted that by the third grade, the advantages bestowed by the pre-kindergarten program disappear, leaving the children with no long-term benefit. f

Well, that study was done in 1969, only four years after Head Start began. Since then, its methodology has been criticized as flawed, according to The National Head Start Association.

Newer studies since then have found solid evidence that Head Start is most worthwhile.

That doesn't surprise me. I worked as an assistant teacher back in the early days of Head Start while I was still in college. The children in my class had health problems that I or the teacher noticed; we reported them and the children got the care they needed. We read to the children, did crafts with them, played with them, and exposed them to the larger world. We gave them the kind of coaching and attention that their parents were either too overworked or under-educated to provide.

Studies in 2003 and 2007 that McCain didn't mention found that Head Start children have higher achievement test scores and higher graduation rates than children who did not take part. Furthermore, a 2004 study projected that for every $1 spent on Head Start, society received $9 in benefits including increased earnings for the graduates, decreased dependency on welfare, and fewer children repeating grades and needing special education services.

When I had my own children, I realized how much of a head start affluent children have. One of my sons began struggling with school in the second grade despite having a high IQ revealed by tests. The school seemed unable to deal with his situation, so I had him privately evaluated. It turned out he had a visual problem that made it very difficult for him to put down on paper what he saw on a blackboard. 

Two months of occupational therapy changed him from an unhappy school child to an enthusiastic one who thereafter had consistently good grades. Among the simple tools that the therapist introduced were chunky pencils that he could hold more easily. 

Every child should have not only a Head Start program if they need one, but also screening for learning problems such as my son had. Investing in early childhood programs and screening pays dividends later, and not only in dollars. 

Imagine how much parental stress and childhood anguish would be avoided if all children received the help they need early in life.

What were you thinking, John McCain?

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