Sunday, January 20, 2013

Head Start: Still useless

Pat Moynihan understood the problem years ago

What is it about the Head Start program that prevents presumably responsible adults from doing what’s best for poor children? What prompts this question is the reaction to a scientifically rigorous evaluation of Head Start released last month. Conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, the study demonstrates (once again) that this Great Society program just doesn’t work.

This time, researchers expanded on previous tracking studies of kids in Head Start, which had stopped at the first-grade level. By measuring the program’s impact on 5,000 three- and four-year-old children all the way through third grade, researchers have given lawmakers a state-of-the-art assessment of the long-term impact of Head Start, one that ought to guide them as they ponder allocating additional billions of dollars to the program.

The findings are most discouraging. “By the end of 3rd grade,” the study’s authors report, “there were very few impacts found . . . in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health, and parenting practices.” The researchers measured a total of 142 outcomes in these four domains and concluded that, within a few years, access to Head Start had no measurable impact on all but six outcomes. Moreover, even in those six, “there was no clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”

As performance goes, that’s about as bad as it can possibly get. But don’t feel bad if you missed the resultant outcry from lawmakers, Obama-administration officials, the mainstream media, and policy experts. That’s because there has been none. Crickets.

So what’s going on here? On the one hand, Head Start has been blessed with one of the best name brands of any government program — ever. Everyone wants preschoolers from low-income households to be academically prepared for the challenges grade school presents. Unfortunately, Head Start’s unassailable mission has been the cross its presumed beneficiaries have had to bear for lo these past 48 years.

How so? From the program’s inception in 1965, politicians of every political stripe have learned that they can burnish their poverty-fighting credentials simply by bestowing an endless series of funding increases on Head Start. On cue, sympathetic political commentators, academics, and the beneficiaries of Head Start grants reinforce this dynamic by turning any serious discussion of Head Start’s effectiveness into an unforgiving political minefield. Dare to question its efficacy or propose reforms to improve Head Start’s outcomes (say, by proposing to strengthen the academic qualifications of Head Start teachers) and you’ll feel the wrath of the Head Start Industrial Complex.

Yet the facts about the matter are well established. Our $8 billion–per–year “investment” in Head Start ($180 billion in all since its creation) yields no discernable advantage for the children it is meant to help.

Questions concerning Head Start’s effectiveness have plagued it throughout its history. And, sadly, so long as there have been gold-plated, double-blind, peer-reviewed evaluations of Head Start, there have been politicians who would rather use the program to advance their careers than confront the real-world consequences of failing 1 million poor kids each year.

As far back as 1969, a Nixon White House aide by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan engaged in this sort of mischief. As editor Steven Weisman notes in a recently published collection of Moynihan’s letters, Moynihan sought to make sure that “the press gave Nixon credit for supporting programs for the poor.”

Alerted that a series of very critical evaluations of Head Start and other Great Society anti-poverty programs was imminent, Moynihan enlisted New York Times columnist James (Scotty) Reston in a little damage control. “[A] succession of research reports,” he wrote Reston, “will argue that the various specific undertakings [to alleviate poverty] have failed.” The “most consequential” study, he warned, will find “that Head Start does not work.” Specifically, Head Start “does nothing for the education achievement, attitudes, motivation, or whatever of poor children.” This most recent study, he acknowledged, “is the biggest and best to date” and, perhaps because of its authoritativeness, will cause Congress to react with “frustration, even disgust” and conclude that Head Start has been “oversold.” The program’s true believers, on the other hand, will man the bulwarks, deny the study’s findings, and accuse the programs’ detractors of “racism, cruelty to children, and methodological inadequacies.”

Rather than stoke the fires of a vicious ideological battle that would threaten Head Start’s future, Moynihan implored Reston to convince his colleagues at the Times “to be careful in reporting these issues in the next few months.” After all, he concluded, “complex problems are not always depicted as such in the press.”

Half a century has passed and the media remain as “careful” as ever in their coverage of Head Start. Remarkably, the release of the new study elicited no discernable press coverage. Nor has it prompted experts in early-childhood development or pro-Head Start lawmakers to reassess the government’s track record in alleviating poverty. Aside from a useful overview of the study’s findings by two Heritage experts, the only reaction comes from a Reuters op-ed written by Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, the prime Head Start lobbying entity. Remarkably, after examining the study, Vinci perfunctorily dismissed it. “So,” she concluded, “the answer is — yes, Head Start works.”

Head Start’s 1 million kids deserve better. Washington should take the HHS study seriously and look for more effective ways to offer poor children a realistic chance to surmount poverty and achieve their dreams.


Bursting the University Bubble

The last of the college applications have been rewritten, tweaked and polished, and at last entrusted to the tender mercies of the U.S. Mail or the Internet. Fretting over deadlines morphs into waiting, and yearning, wishing and praying for coveted letters of acceptance. This is the annual crisis in thousands of homes with ambitious high school seniors -- the high school seniors and their parents who still believe that college is the route to the American Dream.

But wait. While they play the conventional game of aspiration, certain scholars and economists, and hundreds of thousands of "concerned citizens" have initiated a different debate, and the debate is growing.

They're talking about the changes in university life and whether we should continue up the garden path worn bare over the decades. The debate is over the "higher education bubble," a phrase popularized by Glenn Reynolds, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee, who compares what's happening in higher education to what happened when housing became a feverish exercise in speculation.

"Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever," Reynolds says. "Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already where education is concerned." With so much fat in the system the knowledge protein may not be enough to produce the intellectual muscle needed for a prosperous life in the 21st century. Like fast food and high-energy drinks, empty calories offer only temporary highs.

"The college presidents with their $1 million-plus salaries and bloated administrative staffs, the whole system of tenure has turned out to be as much a recipe for intellectual conformity as it is a fiscal nightmare," observes the New Criterion, a magazine that closely follows the politicization of the university.

In the decade after 2001, the number of administrators grew 50 times faster than the number of instructors, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A decline in the hours spent in teaching by tenured professors coincides with sharply increasing tuition fees to pay for luxury dorms, dining halls and gyms that have little to do with actual learning but everything to do with bulking up the academic bureaucracy.

With tightening family budgets, the high debt that accompanies students to college and an increasing public reckoning of diminishing value, college becomes a risky investment. Hundreds of parents are concluding that it may not be worth it.

Moody's Investors Service, the credit rating firm, finds that students are "increasingly attending more affordable community colleges, studying part time or electing to enter the workforce without the benefit of a college education." Total student debt now approaches a trillion dollars.

That's the bad news. The good news is that new technology offers less expensive access to information, providing quality goods at lower cost.

In prophesying the end of the university as we know it, Nathan Harden, author of "Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad," finds a silver lining in the crisis, an innovative challenge that goes beyond avoiding the pitfalls in the long title of his book.

Students seeking knowledge could pay a fraction of what they do now to get an education, often a better education, as streaming videos replace live lectures, and professors and students employ the Internet to exchange papers and exams, and join in conversations over the coursework.

"If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before," writes Harden in American Interest magazine.

Textbooks are already less expensive in the ebook edition. Students can read out-of-copyright books free on the Internet's Project Gutenberg. If the best professors and universities participate, the virtual classroom can reach millions of students. When computer-guided learning is combined with traditional classroom discussion, students learn faster. High tech plus human contact forges a powerful union.

There are obstacles aplenty to improving higher education for less money, but the trends inspire optimism. One professor of computer science at Stanford discovered he could reach as many online students in one year as it would take 250 years in a college classroom. Harvard and MIT now offer a credentialed certificate for students who complete their online courses and can show a mastery of the material.

The monks who salvaged the classics, recording them with painful diligence on papyrus, nevertheless lost their jobs with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of moveable type. If there's a phoenix to rise from the ashes of university excess, then bandwidth, RAM and gigabytes must assist the flight.

When fleet-footed Hermes is reincarnated as a courier of fast-forward high tech, the university bubble may burst in many directions, accelerating the delivery of information.

There's a caution (as there always is). The speed with which information is delivered has little to do with the achievement of wisdom. As the Bard would say, "Aye, there's the rub."


Degrees in misogyny: Disturbing insight into culture of sex and alcohol at Britain's top universities

An imprudent approach to alcohol and sex  has always been a part of university student life but the imprudence does seem to have got extreme at many British universities

The invitation left little to the imagination: the silhouette of a naked woman in stilettoes with horns and a whip, posing in a seated position like Sharon Stone in that now infamous moment from the film, Basic Instinct.

The scene inside the University of Exeter’s Great Hall, setting for the annual Safer Sex Ball last month, was as decadent as the publicity material which advertised it.

Each guest — girls mostly dressed in lingerie, boys in their underpants — was given a condom when they arrived. (The pretext of the bash was to raise awareness of Aids). Many attending also brought their own contraceptive supplies.

One of the rooms in the main campus building was turned into a mini-casino for the night. Another featured a burlesque act called ‘Kinky and Quirky .... the best “Tease” in Devon’.

‘The atmosphere in the Great Hall wasn’t fantastic, but it was quite different in the other rooms,’ a 21-year-old student revealed. ‘To be honest, it was like going to any other university ball, except that everyone was in their underwear rather than a dress.’

The university authorities, though, could never have imagined the event, as risqué as it was, would prove to be even more controversial than previous balls held in the name of so-called sex education.

The last one in 2011 attracted widespread criticism for using promotional leaflets containing a ‘joke’ about the number of calories a man could burn off by stripping a girl naked without her consent. On another recent occasion, a scantily-clad reveller was filmed gyrating while holding a sign which said: ‘No 1 Sh**.’

But the college top brass were in for a surprise.

For it emerged this week that shortly before 1.50am on December 11, as the raucous party neared its end, a couple sloped off to the bar, where they ended up in a darkened and deserted corner next to a pool table. The two soon lost all inhibitions. They didn’t know — or probably didn’t care by that stage — that a CCTV camera was trained on them.

Not so very long ago, what happened between them, however reckless or foolhardy, would have remained private, or at least as private as it is possible to be when you are having sex in a bar.

Instead, the whole world has been able to witness their steamy encounter. Footage from the security eye on the wall, it transpires, was recorded on to a mobile phone and sent to fellow students when they returned from their Christmas break.

Last night it emerged that two members of staff who had worked for the Students’ Guild were responsible for filming the footage from the CCTV camera.

Since then, the four-minute clip has been viewed not only by thousands of young people with smartphones in and outside Exeter University; it has also gone viral on the internet and caused something of a media storm.

Today, there is really only one topic of conversation on campus: who are the unidentified couple?  She is in a negligee; he wears shorts, cape and headband. Their faces have not been pixelated.

The fallout has been devastating, not just for the embarrassed duo, but for others who have also been dragged into the scandal. One student in particular has been the subject of hurtful rumours and gossip. She vehemently insists she is not the girl in the video, saying she has a boyfriend and did not even attend the Safer Sex Ball. Her account is supported by a tweet she sent after the raucous extravaganza in which she reveals she is ‘at home’ (away from Exeter) and another later when she tweets she is ‘on train back to Exeter’.

Even so, her reputation has been traduced. And the furore shows no sign of abating.

The Athletics Union, the governing body of sports societies at Exeter, is understood to be ‘scrutinising’ claims a female footballer was the young women caught in flagrante. The club categorically denies that any of its players were involved.

The incident is still among the ‘most read’ items on The Tab, an online tabloid newspaper for the University of Exeter (11 other universities, including Cambridge, Leeds and Durham, have their own version of the site). It ran a poll asking students whether the footage should be posted on its website.

An overwhelming 83 per cent (947) voted Yes, which, in its own way, tells us as much about the society we now live in as the events that unfolded that night.

A decision was eventually taken not to publish the material following legal advice. The Tab was told it could have been in breach of data protection and human rights legislation if it had. Not that this will be any consolation to the frisky couple whose humiliation is already complete.

Before smart phones, instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, you would probably not have read about them at all. But the revolution in social media appears to not only mirror the culture of voyeurism and exhibitionism that seems so prevalent — especially among the young — but to encourage and fuel it.

Exeter, it should be pointed out, is a member of the Russell Group of leading universities and was recently named University Of The Year in the Sunday Times University Guide.

Few would think so if they read The Tab — ‘a newspaper for students, not a student newspaper’.

Much of its website features both male and female students without clothes on.

Parents about to pay the £9,000-a-year tuition fees for their sons and daughters to study at Exeter should perhaps turn away at this point or pour themselves a stiff drink.

One of the stories on The Tab website concerns the phenomenon of ‘spotting’, which involves taking (usually inappropriate) photographs of yourself or friends in public places and posting them on the internet. In this case, a male student is pictured (or ‘spotted’) sitting at a library computer screen with his trousers pulled down and his ‘family jewels’ exposed (to use The Tab’s description).

Not to be outdone, female students have taken explicit images of themselves and uploaded them on to Facebook. Some are naked from the waist up, their modesty barely protected by a bar bearing the words ‘Original Sin’, the name of the London-based events company that organises themed student parties at Exeter nightclubs. One such night last term was called ‘F*** Me I’m Fresh’ [as in fresher]. A second, a few weeks ago, was entitled ‘F*** Me It’s Xmas.’

So far, so squalid. But it would be unfair to assume Exeter University is in any way out-of-the-ordinary when one looks at student behaviour at seats of learning across the country.

The proof, if any is needed, can be found on the Confessions Of A Uni Student website, founded in September last year, as a vehicle for students around Britain to reveal their most intimate secrets.

Many may wonder why anyone would want to contribute to such a site, even anonymously. But, then, why would you post lewd pictures of yourself on Facebook or ‘vote’ in favour of putting footage of a couple caught having sex on CCTV on the internet just for the fun of it?

Nevertheless, Confessions Of A Uni Student has been flooded with postings from virtually every university in Britain: Edinburgh, Loughborough, the London School of Economics, Brunel, Bristol, Brighton, Nottingham and Manchester, to name but a few.

The vast majority of these ‘confessions’, which reveal details about everything from oral sex to one-night stands, cannot be repeated in a family newspaper even with a liberal sprinkling of asterisks. The website has received more than 226,000 ‘likes’ and rising, meaning those who have read the content approve and have clicked the ‘thumbs-up’ icon.

One ‘confession’ is from a student from Swansea University who reveals how he was kicked out of the home of his girlfriend’s parents after her father accidentally stumbled across pictures of their X-rated bedroom games on her mobile phone. Did he feel any shame or embarrassment? Apparently not.

‘I wish I could have seen her dad’s face when he looked down to see his only daughter, naked and staring back at him, with me giving a thumbs up to the camera.’

Back in Exeter, some of the lewd behaviour has been blamed, rightly or wrongly, on the ‘public school crowd’. Many Old Etonians and their contemporaries from other top public schools like Marlborough traditionally choose Exeter if they cannot get into Oxford or Cambridge (Peter and Zara Phillips are graduates).

Exeter has a good academic track record, after all, as well as excellent facilities, and is in a beautiful part of the country where wealthy families live or have second homes. It’s no coincidence that, at one time, more students at Exeter were said to own their own cars than at almost any other university in the country.

‘Their uniform is Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch [so called ‘preppy’ clothes brands] or trainers and parka jackets,’ one 20-year-old female student told us this week. ‘They stand out a mile even when they are trying to look more ordinary. They have all got the obligatory signet ring on their little finger.

‘I think the problem is that some of them have got more money than sense and party hard, which they seem very proud of. Some of them have been so heavily spoonfed that they can’t think for themselves. I think they go off the rails a bit here because no one is telling them what to do, where they should be and when.’

It is a story we heard from a string of sources at Exeter. The behaviour of a section of the male student population at Exeter has resulted in what one female undergraduate described as a ‘testosterone-fuelled’ atmosphere.

There were two allegations of sexual harassment made by female students in the 2011/12 academic year and five the previous year.

But sexist behaviour, we have been told, is commonplace. ‘Hi, slut’ has become an all too familiar way of addressing women undergraduates.

‘I have run into boys, particularly from the sports societies, on nights out who refer to you as a “slag” or “slut” and think its funny,’ says a second-year student. ‘They say it’s just banter, but it’s demeaning.  ‘If you take them on about it, then they say you’re uptight, a prude or a lesbian. Sometimes I think we have gone backwards not forwards.’

Such attitudes can never be justified. But the behaviour of some women at Exeter, as we have already seen, has not helped. This is something which has been highlighted by the university’s award-winning newspaper, the fortnightly Exeposé.

One recent report was prompted by the growing number of girls posting compromising pictures of themselves on the internet, particularly on the Facebook page of event-organisers Original Sin.

‘Substantial concerns have been expressed regarding the way in which some women in particular have been presented and placed in a number of the images with some students claiming the shots condone the objectification of women,’ the paper said.

The Original Sin Facebook page featured many photographs of semi-naked students cavorting for the camera. Some were engaged in apparently drunken deep kissing while others were snapped having booze poured down their throats from bottles high above their heads by pals. Other photographs featured trays of glasses filled with red alcopops. Others showed bottles of booze next to boxes of condoms.

Yesterday, Tom Wye, Original Sin director, said: ‘In some circumstances, some people will go further than others to be noticed. At no point are people encouraged to do anything they’re uncomfortable with, or that may upset others.’

There are now signs that the university authorities are cracking down on some of the more outrageous behaviour, at least on campus. ‘Employers now scan social networking sites and will take a view on people’s professionalism based on what they read,’ the university management warned.

The couple caught on CCTV at the most recent Safer Sex Ball (and indeed the people responsible for circulating the footage) will now be hoping that there are no further revelations — such as their names becoming public.

But given the ubiquity of social media nowadays, there’s no guarantee of that.


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