Head Start sounds like the sort of thing that ought to work. It is certainly well-intentioned. But the problem turns out to be more complex than our education theorists have accounted for, and the evidence shows incontrovertibly that the program simply does not perform as advertised. To paraphrase F. A. Hayek, it is the curious task of social scientists to demonstrate to politicians how little they know about what they imagine they can plan. There is an ideology at work behind the cult of Head Start, the usual liberal dream of human perfectibility that insists human beings are blank slates on every score except sexual orientation.
Early-childhood programs other than Head Start face similar shortcomings. One of the most intensive attempts at early intervention was the experimental Abecedarian Early Intervention Project, conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in the 1970s. The goal was to see if early intervention could prevent what was known at the time as “sociocultural retardation,” or low IQ and poor educational performance related to economic conditions and other environmental factors. The program was enormously ambitious in its scope, amounting to surrogate parenting. An overwhelmingly African-American group of infants — average age 4.4 months — from poor families were given between six and eight hours a day of highly personalized educational attention, along with nutritional supplementation, health care, and other social services, for a period of five years.
The results, like those of Head Start, were inconclusive. Most of the benefits realized in the five-year program were already evident at six months of age, leading early-childhood-education scholar Herman Spitz to conclude that “four and a half years of massive intervention ended with virtually no effect.” Whether those differences at six months were the result of the intervention or simply the product of faulty experimental randomization remains a matter of dispute. What is not in dispute is that Abecedarian was much more ambitious than anything that is plausibly on offer from the federal government, and that its benefits were far from obvious.
There are two questions that need to be answered here. One is whether early-education programs work at all. The answer for programs such as Head Start is clearly “no.” The answer for more intensive programs along the lines of the Abecedarian Project is “probably not.” The second question is whether the $23,000 per student per year spent on Head Start or the much larger sum that would be required for a more intensive program might be put to some better use. The answer to that question is almost certainly “yes.”
A third question — whether any of this really matters to the Obama administration — is relevant, though not subject to rigorous empirical study. But the administration has shown itself immune to what somebody once called the inconvenient truth, which comes at a measurable cost to taxpayers and an immeasurable cost to the disadvantaged children we might be helping if we substituted educational policies that work for those that do not.