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Universal Pre-K and School Breakfasts- Some Observations

As part of Obama’s vision to remake America, he proposed in his State of the Union address, and in his budget, universal Pre-K education for all American school children age 3-4. Today, perhaps the closest thing we have in that area is a relic from Johnson’s War on Poverty- the Head Start program. This program is not necessarily “universal,” but is targeted to children in the lower socioeconomic strata in an effort to kick start their education aalegedly because they start at a disadvantage. Some states mandate Pre-K education for 4-year-old children while education below that age level is usually a private enterprise. Ironically, since Head Start was created in 1965, there was no “definitive” study on its effectiveness until one was forced upon the Department of Health and Human Services by Congress. Prior to this study, released in 2012, there had been private studies and some conducted at the state level.

What these studies indicate- and the results are rather consistent whether conducted by the federal or state government, an educational institution, or a private company- is two things. The first is that while you are a 3- or 4-year-old and if you are in Head Start, your academic and social skills are no better than those in a private or state-run Pre-K program (provided SES are held constant). More importantly, these studies indicate that by time a student completes third grade, there is absolutely no difference between a Head Start student and one who had no Pre-K whatsoever. In fact, any “advantage” gained from Head Start is pretty much lost by the end of kindergarten in the academic area. Perhaps equally important, teacher reports of student in-class behavior indicate that “graduates” of Head Start lag behind those of their non-Head Start peers and that extends to social interactions with their classmates. The only net positive reports come from the parents of the Head Start students who report that their children appear more well-behaved and act better with other children.

There is one obvious reason that comes to mind for this state of affairs. Head Start is a Federal program- fully funded and mandated by the educational bureaucrats in Washington. There is an obvious disconnect between what Washington feels is necessary in Pre-K education as it applies to future elementary school performance, and what local or state education officials feel is important. For example, in Pre-K programs run at the local level by the school district, some studies have shown that the children in those programs perform better than their peers in kindergarten than those who did not attend Pre-K. Furthermore, they perform better than their peers who went through the Head Start program.

From personal experience teaching in an elementary school, one can usually tell those students in kindergarten who have attended the optional Pre-K classes offered by the district and those who are entering kindergarten cold with no Pre-K experience. I have also observed and dealt with Head Start children and those who attended a private Pre-K. There definitely is a pecking order that goes something like this: At the top is those who attended the district-run Pre-K, followed by those with no Pre-K experience, followed by private Pre-K experience, and with Head Start kids at the bottom. However, the main difference is not academic, but in their behaviors. Those that attended the district-run Pre-K simply seem more behaved, attentive and respectful of teachers and their classmates. This is likely because their is continuity between the Pre-K educational philosophy and expectations and the regular elementary school kindergarten. Mind you, they are not necessarily “smarter,” just better behaved. Perhaps the only area where I have personally seen where Head Start has provided some assistance to children is with learning English language skills. Working in a school district with a large proportion of its students (in the school I am at) of foreign ethnicity- Hispanic, Bengali, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese- many of the Spanish-speaking students who attended Head Start seem to have a slight advantage over those who did not attend Head Start. That being said, the ESL teachers in the public school do a tremendous job with both groups so that by the fourth grade, one sees absolutely no difference in their English language abilities. In fact, older students who are recent arrivals to this country with minimal English language skills, given the ESL training, show a remarkable ability to learn English quickly. Just a personal note: I have seen many an ESL teacher work with these children for an hour. When they return to the full class, they tend to speak Spanish to friends. To a person, the ESL teacher will reprimand that child for talking in their native language with this admonition: “You are in America now and we speak English. Stop speaking Spanish in class and speak English!” And this is a public school.

What all this translates into is the fact that the federal government, besides being a terrible administrator, is also a terrible educator. It is quite obvious that Obama either did not read or simply ignored the findings of the HHS report on Head Start. If he had, then the man surely has balls to propose a federally-mandated universal Pre-K program in his budget given the apparent abject failure Head Start has proven to be over the years. This is a program that siphons over $8 billion annually now from the US Treasury for obviously dubious results. It is obvious that if there is to be “universal Pre-K” education, that these programs are best formulated at the local level so that whatever is taught there easily translates into the normal elementary school requirements of kindergarten and beyond with respect to that school district. That is, the transition from Pre-K to kindergarten to older grades should be seamless. Instead, with Head Start, you apparently have curriculum or goals working at odds with the local district, or uncoordinated at the best. Hence, IF there is to be any kind of universal pre-K program, then it should simply be administered in the form of block grants to states. However, given the track record of pre-K education in general, its merits are questionable at best.

Perhaps a lot of this has to simply do with the cognitive abilities of pre-school children regardless of socioeconomic status. And as far as social skills go, prior to pre_k programs be they through public schools, privately, or Head Start, that was achieved through simple play in the neighborhood with these things called “friends.” Naturally, parents with their kids in Head Start sing the program’s praises because they have, in effect, free day care for the bulk of their day. Replacing parents and siblings in the upbringing of children with Head Start is not a worthy educational or social goal. Personally, this writer believes that Head Start should be declared a failure and moving forward, the program scrapped and the $8 billion annual expenditure saved.

As for the free school breakfast program available in certain districts, this concept was the impetus for this entry. Dennis Prager recently wrote an article on the school breakfast program for Investors Business Daily using the program in Los Angeles as a backdrop to decry the efficacy of such programs. Unlike the school lunch program which started in the 1950s as a means to use up excess agricultural output after World War II, the school breakfast program is more recent in origin having started in the 1990s. Unlike Head Start, there are many studies on the efficacy of the programs where they exist as regards childhood nutrition, hunger issues and, most importantly, academic achievement. His analysis leads him to the strange conclusion that school breakfast programs are some bizarre means of government control over children and inoculation into a liberal, entitlement mindset.

His first argument is that the program is premised upon faulty assumptions that the family’s of low income children are unable to adequately feed their children breakfast. For example, he cites a website where a child can be fed an adequate breakfast for $1 a day at home. While this may be true, school breakfasts are relatively cheaper coming in at about 75 cents per day (although there are regional variations). His second argument is that they enable and encourage irresponsible parental behavior by relying on the school, not the home, to provide a breakfast to the child. Therefore, his third point is that the parental-child bond is broken or weakened because breakfast is not served at home and this would be the time for early morning family communication. Fourth, and most troubling to Prager, is the fact that relying on school breakfast programs weakens a child’s character because they come to expect food at school as an entitlement. Supposedly, if one expects an entitlement at age 5 or 12, then the groundwork is laid for an entitlement mentality later in life.

Now for the reality, I have observed no such thing in the district where I work regardless of a child’s SES and there are many a low income family. Kindergarten and first grade eat in the cafeteria. Prager argues further that school breakfast takes away from valuable classroom time. First, not every child gets a breakfast at school. Secondly, the breakfasts are pre-packaged and contain cereal, a small cookie, and a fruit juice. They also receive milk. The entire process from getting breakfast, eating it and cleaning up lasts about 20 minutes at the beginning of the school day- a time normally devoid of any learning anyway, especially in the younger grades. For the older children (grades 2-8), they eat their breakfast in their room. During that time, every teacher assigns morning work that is to be completed WHILE eating breakfast. You will not see too many students exclusively eating breakfast and if you pass by any classroom, you will hear quiet and see eating and pencils moving. Those that decline the breakfast because they ate at home or whatever, do their work and read. Hence, very little valuable class time is lost because of this.

Most importantly- and there are tons of studies from a variety of sources with a variety of political agendas- having breakfast whether at home or at school is conducive to learning and academic achievement. Most studies indicate that those who have breakfast at school perform better on academic measurements when compared against identically situated children who do not have a breakfast. If the bottom line purpose of education is academic achievement and a program like this consistently is demonstrated to increase academic achievement, then it makes perfect sense to have the program. Whether they get breakfast at home or the token breakfast at school (there are no cooks serving up omelets), then all the better.

As for the other charges in the article, there are no longitudinal studies on school breakfast programs to see if later in life the student is more dependent on government services, or if there is a weak family bond, or any other thing Prager alleges. But from my personal experiences, most of the kids who participate come from broken homes- which is not their fault- or one parent families where that parent works one or two jobs, or sometimes both parents working jobs with irregular hours. Unfortunately, not everyone has the benefit of working 9-5, like a columnist for the Investors Business Daily. Providing for a child by working two jobs, even if that means less time together as a family in the morning, is certainly not an indication of “irresponsible parenting.” And if it is, then how school breakfasts enhance that irresponsibility requires a huge leap of logic. And having now seen children over the years from kindergarten to the older grades, school breakfast has had no effect on their character in the later grades. If they lacked “character” in kindergarten, chances are they lack character in fifth grade. If they had character early, they have character later. In other words, breakfast at school has very little to do with a child’s character.

Unfortunately, the Prager article does not match the reality, at least as this writer has experienced it. Near the end of the article, he argues that school breakfasts served in cafeterias strengthens the public school unions by providing more food service jobs. As I have noted, however, food service people are not even involved in any instance I know of regarding the breakfast program. They do not deliver it to the classrooms nor are they present in the cafeteria for the younger kids. Hence, there are no extra unionized food service employees. He claims that it replaces government authority for parental authority when it comes to breakfast. Well, unless Prager and his ilk can somehow wave his magic wand and change economic reality where all families are stable with two parents with only one of them working and the other staying at home and getting breakfast together for their kids, then the reality of better learning on a full stomach trumps his imaginary magic wand. His third final assertion is that the program simply serves to make liberals feel good about themselves. It should make everyone- liberal and conservative alike- feel good to find something that is proven to enhance academic achievement in education despite whether that idea was “liberal” or “conservative” in origin.

Considering the amount of food wasted or thrown away daily in this country, diversion of part of that “waste” to a school breakfast program makes perfectly good logical sense. This is not some liberal thought control exercise and one would think that Prager and others would concentrate more on the real thought control efforts in schools (God knows, there are many, many examples) rather than on a small carton of milk, a cookie and a small container of cereal.

Despite where the idea comes from, if the program is found to have beneficial effects on education, despite one’s political ideology, those programs should be embraced and enhanced. In the area of school breakfasts, the beneficial effects are well studied and documented. Therefore, this is a good program. Conversely, if a program is found to be ineffective and costly with no long-term benefits, then it should be terminated. Head Start fits that description precisely. Most importantly, the Federal government needs to get their noses out of K-12 education and not attempt to double down on ineffective Pre-K education programs. NO, president Obama: universal pre-K will NOT solve this nation’s educational problems and will not have us catch up to our foreign counterparts in terms of math, science, and literacy. He has the study from his own cabinet department. It is time to read it and stop ignoring reality.

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