The Case for Federal Studies

by John Hood

I meant to highlight this piece by the Heritage Foundation’s David Muhlhausen when it first came out a couple of months ago, but better late than never. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Muhlhausen made the important point that government rarely stops to study the efficacy of its programs. Many federal programs would lend themselves to rigorous evaluation if policymakers were so inclined — because the programs could be implemented in some places and not in other, comparable ones, or participation could be capped and randomly assigned, thus creating control groups. Unfortunately, the federal government has conducted only 13 such evaluations since it began to study itself in the 1960s. Muhlhausen explains with a familiar example:

Maybe the Feds just don’t want to be purveyors of bad news. That’s certainly what emerged from the 2010 Head Start Impact Study. A rigorous experimental evaluation, the study placed almost 5,000 children eligible for Head Start into two treatment conditions, determined by a lottery. Children who won the lottery got access to prekindergarten Head Start services; the others either didn’t attend preschool or found alternatives to Head Start.

The study tracked the children’s progress through kindergarten and the first grade. Overall, the program yielded little to no positive effects. On all 41 measures of cognitive ability, Head Start failed to raise abilities of those who entered the program as 4-year-olds. Specifically, their language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance were no better than those of the children denied access to the program.

Those who entered as 3-year-olds had similar results. They scored no better than nonparticipants on 40 of the cognitive measures and significantly worse on one: Head Start grads, according to their kindergarten teachers, were significantly less well prepared in math skills.

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