LARSON: Degree of truth depends on who is doing the telling

Susan Larson

Susan Larson

What goes around comes around. And so it is with my columns. With all the hoopla about Head Start in the news lately, I couldn’t help but revisit a column I wrote in August of 2000.

There was controversy over Dick Cheney’s observation that Head Start wasn’t working. Then the Wall Street Journal ran an article stating, “(The) program had no educational objectives, no curriculum and few educational requirements for staff members — mostly low-income women from the kids’ own neighborhood.”

I can relate to that. In the ’70s I worked as a field tester for Head Start. The federal government required that the racial make-up of the testers reflect that of the kids. I was one of four testers out of about 50 who represented the racial minority. Most of the others had no college experience. One man told me he’d been offered the job while standing at a bus stop.

This wouldn’t have been so bad if all we did was hand a kid a test and watch him circle an answer. That was not the case.

One test involved simultaneously flipping cards and recording a child’s response to the nearest tenth of a second on a stopwatch. Many testers could neither operate nor read a stop watch, much less flip cards at the same time. Due to time restraints in our training session, the instructor told them to just make a good guess.

Another test required the kids to answer simple questions like “What color is the sky?” while the tester wrote down their response.

Some testers protested that “kids in the ghetto” had no way of knowing those things. But we were not testing the kids. We were testing the program. The kids themselves would remain anonymous. Though reminded of this repeatedly, these testers wrote down the “correct” answers in order to “help” the kids and to help “correct the injustices in their lives.” So the government spent thousands of dollars to produce “statistics” that showed Head Start was succeeding.

Again, Head Start statistics are in the news. Several recent studies show (once more) that while Head Start might equip kids with social skills needed for kindergarten, by the time they get to third grade, there is no difference between them and their non-Head Start classmates.

I know, you’re asking why we should believe these stats either. All I can say is that some research programs are top notch, like the Harvard Project, one of Gwinnett’s most recent research tools to test our math program. I am proud to say I was a proctor for this study and worked among some of the most professional people I’ve ever met, including local coordinator, Barbara Schmich. Whatever they say when this project ends, I’ll believe it.

They say numbers don’t lie. But I’m here to tell ya, the truth only lies in who’s doing the telling.

Susan Larson is a writer and freelance researcher from Lilburn. Email her at susanlarson79@gmail.com


FranStewart 2 years, 7 months ago

Amen. "Who's doing the telling?" That precept is true in a number of other areas as well as in Head Start research.


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