We demand full funding for Head Start for poor children, knowing that by the time these youngsters reach school age, many of them will already be well behind their middle-class peers. Then we learn from the latest brain development studies that even Head Start may be too late; the very earliest years--indeed the early months--are critically important in stretching the brain's potential.

And then we blithely assert that any gap in academic achievement between poor and nonpoor children is the fault of the schools.

We go further than that. We say the failure is willful--the result of near-criminal unconcern at best or, at worst, blatant racism. If the schools would only spend on poor children what they spend on the rich ones, or hire for poor children the teachers they hire for the rich ones--if they would only stop treating poor children differently--then the achievement gaps would disappear.

The teachers, who know it's a lie, hardly dare whisper the truth, lest they seem to accuse themselves of the very lie they would refute. They hardly speak out when, as is happening in Florida and being talked about elsewhere, entire schools are punished for failing to close achievement gaps not of their making.

There's no good answer to the charge: If you taught my child properly, he wouldn't be behind. The teacher can hardly say, "Oh, yes he would, lady; the kid was messed up before I ever laid eyes on him."

It only gets worse when you add race or ethnicity to the poverty.

But why should there be such a consistent link between poverty and academic underperformance? If poor children are missing things that money can buy, shouldn't a country as rich as America be buying those things?

Except that there are some things money can't buy. We know that, too, but seldom say it as plainly and as sensibly as Richard Rothstein managed in a New York Times column the other day. His point of departure was the new rush to condemn schools as "failing"--no matter who attends them--if the average test scores fall below the median. Said Rothstein:

"We cannot seriously believe this. Consider how typical middle-class families raise children. Infants' first toys are 'touch and feel' books. Toddlers soon 'read' stories from memory. Magnetic letters decorate refrigerator doors. Sitting on parents' laps, children 'help' compose on computers before they can talk.

"These children attend preschool with equally verbal toddlers. They adopt family assumptions that someday they too will become professionals. . . .

"But other children's homes are without books, magnetic letters or computers. These children have day care, not preschool. Some enter kindergarten not knowing how to hold pencils. . . . Do we really expect typical children in poor communities, even in good schools, to achieve just like typical children in schools where most had a middle-class 'head start'?"

The answer is obvious, but it is only the beginning. If the preschool experiences of many children predispose them to academic difficulty, then we must either change those experiences or else compensate for them.

Head Start was supposed to do a bit of both, but, to repeat, it reaches too few of the children eligible for the program and, as we are now discovering, it probably comes too late. Attempts to compensate for the resulting gap bring their own problems, the most obvious of which is that the children already in front don't just twiddle their thumbs and wait for the slower ones to catch up. It's a little like the problem of pulling the slower students out of class for remediation. While you're filling one gap, you're creating another.

Changing the experiences of poor children may take more effort--and more intrusive intervention--than some of us are comfortable with and, besides, take a long time before the results show up.

Rothstein proposes that we follow South Carolina's lead in holding schools to higher, but not identical, standards. That state sorts its schools into five income-based groups, and gives bonuses to the best-achieving schools in each group--even though the actual scores of a "successful" school may be lower than those of an "unsuccessful" school with less poverty.

That may ease the problem of ranking schools, but it doesn't do much for helping the children catch up. I don't know how to do that beyond the painstaking work of teaching parents (and parents-to-be) how to boost their youngsters' intellectual development, socialization and self-confidence--starting at birth.

We need a Head Start for Parents.