- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

Forty years after it was created, Head Start remains a lavishly funded education program whose results remain unproven. But as lawmakers and activists struggle to figure out what to do with Head Start, they might examine why the program was initially created. A very good analysis is provided by Maris Vinovskis in The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations (University of Chicago Press, $29, 155 pages)

In his conclusions, Mr. Vinovskis, a historian at the University of Michigan, states that he believes that Head Start was a “good idea” that ultimately helps children of low-income families do better in school. But the evidence he provides shows that Head Start was badly managed from the beginning. Poverty-fighters in the Johnson Administration, led by Sargent Shriver, thought that helping preschoolers would be worthwhile. They took a small pilot project created by the Ford Foundation as part of its “Gray Areas Program” and expanded it on a massive scale. By making sure that Head Start rapidly became a national program, Shriver and his subordinates correctly assumed that Head Start would become yet another permanent Washington bureaucracy.

Within three years after its creation, several investigations showed that Head Start was rife with fraud and abuse—and had little effect on student achievement. Had conservatives been more dominant at this time, it is possible that Head Start would either have been eliminated or converted into a voucher. But the strength of the Democratic Party in the 1960s ensured that Head Start would survive its stormy early years.

Mr. Vinovskis’ book, carefully researched from many archives, is not easy to read. But he reminds us that federal government programs, once created, are rarely abolished. The lesson learned from Mr. Vinovskis is that we should be very cautious about creating any new federal education programs.

In recent years, the International Baccalaureate (IB) has become increasingly popular for schools looking for proven methods to increase student achievement. But as George Archibald reported in this newspaper last year, many parents have their suspicions about IB, thinking it a stealthy vehicle for sneaking one-worldism into the classroom.

Surprisingly, there has been no book about IB until Jay Mathews and Ian Hill’s Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools (Open Court, $29.95, 229 pages).

Mr. Mathews, a reporter for the Washington Post, has long been an advocate for ways to make smart students work harder in the classroom. He wrote “Supertest” based in part on the research of Mr. Hill, deputy director general of the International Baccalaureate Organization. The book combines Mr. Mathews’ reporting on how the IB was introduced into Fairfax County schools (with particular emphasis on Mount Vernon High School) with a history of how the International Baccalaureate was created.

As Mr. Mathews reports, the IB was indeed created in Switzerland, by leaders of an international school that had French, British, and American students and wanted a credential that would be recognized by schools in all three nations. But the IB is far from an elitist prize; in fact, the top tier of prep schools in the U.S. rejected it. It took over forty years of sustained efforts by dedicated activists (such as Washington International School director Dorothy Goodman) before the IB achieved some measure of success.

“Supertest” has its flaws. The book has no bibliography, so readers interested in IB can’t study the subject further. And while Mr. Mathews adequately describes the IB examinations in academic subjects, showing how they differ from comparable Advanced Placement examinations, he spends far less time describing the volunteer programs required as part of IB. Thus while he shows that International Baccalaureate graduates are well prepared for college, he is unable to prove that the program isn’t teaching principles many parents find offensive.

While there should be more books about the International Baccalaureate, Supertest is a good introduction to what the program is and what its strengths and weaknesses are. Mr. Mathews persuasively shows that IB is a good idea that schools ought to consider.

About once a decade, a prominent CEO of a big corporation issues a call for schoolsto be more “businesslike.” Do these pleas from CEOs help or hinder learning? You won’t find the answer in Larry Cuban’s The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses (Harvard University Press, $23.95, 191 pages).

Mr. Cuban, an emeritus professor at Stanford (and a former Fairfax County school superintendent) has written many important books about education history. He is best known for research that shows that most efforts to upgrade classrooms by spending money on computers or other expensive high-tech equipment are misguided and ineffective.

But his latest book misses its target in several ways. First, he accuses “business” of being behind all sorts of reforms he opposes, such as school choice and charter schools.

But these reforms are largely the efforts of concerned parents, with some foundation support. Many associations that represent businesses, such as the Committee for Economic Development, actively oppose school choice. Second, he argues that pressures to make the schools more “businesslike” come solely from outside. But it’s clear that throughout history, school superintendents have wanted to act like they were powerful business leaders. Modern school bureaucracy was created in part because school superintendents of the 1920s wanted to have as many layers of subordinates as the heads of big corporations did.

Schools are a different type of organization than is a large corporation. But schools can learn from businesses how to be efficient, productive organizations that minimize bureaucracy and red tape. Schools that ignore the reasons why businesses are successful are doomed to mediocrity and failure.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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