It’s Time to Rethink Head Start
Last month on the Friday before Christmas as people were preparing for the week of upcoming festivities, the United States Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation quietly released a report on the effectiveness of one of America’s sacred cows, the Head Start program. The results were surprising – or at least they might have been, had anyone been paying attention.
Because it turns out that Head Start fails to accomplish its mission of better preparing at-risk children to succeed in school.
According to the report, the program does indeed provide an objectively superior preschool experience for those children that participate. Indeed, pre-school aged children enrolled in Head Start performed better than those in the control group. However, the difference between the two groups in cognitive learning and retention disappears by the third grade. Similar results were found with Head Start’s ability to impact social development, physical health or general well-being. From the executive summary:
“In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”
None of this is an indictment on early education, of course. As I noted above, those involved in Head Start did outperform their counterparts at the time they were enrolled in the program. The reason the initial benefit disappears so quickly is at this point unknown. It might simply be that children in a contained environment like a classroom eventually achieve a kind of equilibrium. We may just be running up against be the limits of early-devlopment brain chemistry. Perhaps the home situations of at-risk children eventually take their toll. It could be some combination of these and other factors. But whatever the reason, the findings show that in terms of its mission of helping at-risk children better succeed in elementary and secondary education, Head Start is not an effective tool.
It is, however, an expensive one. Head Start has an annual budget of more than $8 billion annually. The estimated cost-per-child is $9,000. While $9,000 would be a bargain for a program that better positions at-risk kids for college and the job market, it seems exorbitant for results that dry up by the third grade.
For the talk-radio set, of course, the report will no doubt be taken as proof positive of both liberalism’s and the 47%’s inherent failings. I’d bet my next paycheck that any rightwing newscaster that reports on the story leaves out all of the data that shows that when receiving the specialized care of Head Start, those children outperformed their peers.
On the other hand, it’s equally hard to believe that the response on the other side of the aisle will not be to simply double down on Head Start funding requests. Head Start has become more than an early-education policy; it’s become a universal way for liberals and moderate conservatives to signal their constituents. Ironically, in today’s world of horse race political reporting I have my doubts that the voters and pols that most want to provide solutions for at-risk kids will bother with the OPRE report. (It should be noted that the report was ready for release in October of last year; that it was released the Friday afternoon before Christmas seems a pretty good indication that those behind the scenes have no intention of speaking out against Head Start.)
The likely response on both sides is a shame. At-risk children left to the wolves too often grow up to be a drain on society’s resources. The suffocating grip of extreme poverty is too often an endless cycle, no matter how many times you yell “bootstraps” at it. But $8 billion being spent each year on a program that doesn’t work is $8 million not being spent on one that might. In Oregon, for example, the same amount spent on each Head Start child would pay full tuition at the University of Oregon for a poor teenager that couldn’t afford college. A Portland elementary school whose neighborhood had twenty at-risk youths eligible for Head Start could use that same money to hire two fulltime floating special education teachers to assist struggling children. There might ways to assist low-income kids throughout their K-12 years that cost more than Head Start, but that actually work.
Head Start has become a sacred cow because it performs two functions: It inspires us to acknowledge that we can do better for those among us who struggle, and it allows us the lazy comfort of saying that we’ve already got that covered, so there’s no need for us to bother ourselves with it any longer. Better for everyone that we embrace the first and abandon the second. It’s time to consider killing the cow.