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.