Friday, July 3, 2020
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Prince George’s Co. loses a big Head Start grant

Public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have lost a $6.5 million federal grant as a result of complaints of abuse and poor teacher training made against teachers in the county’s Head Start program, the Associated Press reports.

The Administration for Children and Families notified the schools earlier this week about poor instructor training. The feds also said teachers in the district had abused students. Abuse included, allegations say, making a 3-year-old boy mop up his own urine in front of the class and allowing a 5-year-old to wander away from the program and walk home alone.

Prince George’s County CEO Kevin Maxwell told the AP that the Head Start program will begin on August 29, as planned, for the 932 children who are enrolled in the program, despite the loss of the grant. He did, however, say the incidents in the administration’s report were “completely unacceptable”:

“We are deeply troubled by the circumstances that led to this decision,” the Washington Post quoted Mr Maxwell as saying. “Please let me state in no uncertain terms: These incidents are completely unacceptable.”

The findings were first reported by Fox 5 News, which relayed a June incident at the James Ryder Randall Elementary School Head Start Center in Clinton, an incident that sounds a lot like corporal punishment. A girl said she got in trouble for not listening to teachers:

(An assistant teacher) wanted me to hold boxes in the air. I couldn’t breathe. When (the teacher) came in, she made me hold more books. My arms melted. I cried because my arms hurt so much.

This is not discipline, folks. This is hurting kids and humiliating them. If parents had done the sort of thing it is alleged teachers did in Prince George’s County, those parents would be in front of a judge straight away, answering child abuse charges.

Head Start programs have been challenged as ineffective, and the failures have been documented in the scientific literature.

In one major study this year, from the University of California, Irvine, Elizabeth Miller, George Farkas, and Greg Duncan noted a detrimental effect of Head Start programs on the behavior of children the program was designed to serve, when reported by parents, despite a positive impact of the program on children’s behavior when reported by teachers.

Their findings, published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, came from a national sample, not just from Head Start programs in one school district. But when parents report the behavioral effects of Head Start one way and teachers report it another, a red flag goes up, especially since reports usually come in the opposite directions, with teachers decrying the behavioral problems children have and parents thinking they’re own kids are angels.

Furthermore, “Head Start did not differentially benefit the pre-academic skills of children with risk factors targeted by the Head Start service model.”

As far as pre-academic skills go, the study found a significant difference between how well the program works for the average child in a Head Start program and an at-risk child in the program. Head Start is specifically designed to target at-risk populations, and the fact that at-risk kids come out of Head Start lower in pre-academic skills than they would if they had spent that year in a school setting other than Head Start means the program needs a closer look.

“Given Head Start’s ambitious goal of improving a wide array of developmental outcomes for low-income children as well as the difficulty of increasing young children’s academic achievement, especially for high-risk children’s literacy outcomes,” the researchers weren’t surprised by the failure of Head Start to improve pre-academic outcomes. High-risk children have messy lives, and it might be too much to hope that any program, including Head Start, could make a positive difference.

But it shouldn’t make a negative difference. And when teachers abuse kids with corporal punishment and other humiliating treatment and punishment, Head Start isn’t likely to find a friend in any government agency or other organization handing out cash. The at-risk population among those 932 kids in Prince George’s County might consider other options.

Head Start is inconsistent at best, humiliating at its absolute worst. Like many programs, it depends entirely on the people who run it at each school, and in Prince George’s County, it appears those people fall well short of federal requirements that form the basis of this grant.

On the other hand, fine Head Start programs, even in Maryland, can be found in abundance. These programs produce college graduates and upstanding members of the community, made from the cloth of poor schoolkids from poor neighborhoods.

Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, recently published a major study about the biggest Head Start program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her research looked at how students from Head Start were doing years later. Her findings, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, show that the program brings clear benefits.

Numbers about the pre-academic skills of high-risk kids should be taken with a grain of salt. If a Head Start program has good volunteers—and enough of them—the kids can thrive. Plus, Head Start can serve as a source of daycare for poor parents who need to work as many hours as possible at low-wage jobs.

That is, you can pull out the numbers, which are admittedly discouraging for Head Start, or you can do something about the Head Start program in your school: volunteer. You are likely to be in awe at the work done by Head Start teachers who, unlike those in Prince George’s County, have been trained well in delivering a program to high-risk kids.

If you’re lucky, maybe you can teach kids a thing or two. Maybe you can encourage them to take charge of their own lives. Maybe you can convince their parents to take an interest in their sons’ and daughters’ education. Numbers be damned. It’s about community.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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