Head Start Scaremongering

by David B. Muhlhausen

Yesterday, President Obama criticized Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan as making “draconian cuts” to federal spending programs. In particular, the president said, “If this budget becomes law and the cuts were applied evenly, starting in 2014, over 200,000 children would lose their chance to get an early education in the Head Start program.” The clear implication is that over 200,000 children will somehow be harmed by not attending Head Start — a “Great Society” pre-school program intended to provide a boost to disadvantaged children before they enter elementary school. This would only be true if Head Start were an effective program that benefits the children it serves.

However, the 2010 Head Start Impact Study, a scientifically rigorous evaluation of multiple Head Start sites throughout the nation, clearly found that the program is ineffective at providing a boost to children while in kindergarten and the first grade. The study placed almost 5,000 three- to four-year-old children eligible for Head Start into two treatment conditions based on a lottery. The children who won the lottery were awarded “free” (taxpayer-paid) access to pre-kindergarten Head Start services, while the others either did not attend preschool or sought out alternatives to Head Start. Instead of providing a boost, the program had little to no positive effects for children granted access to Head Start.

For the four-year-old group, compared to similarly situated children not allowed access to Head Start, access to the program failed to raise the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants on 41 measures. Specifically, the language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance of the participating children failed to improve.

Alarmingly, access to Head Start for the three-year-old group actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math ability of these children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating children were more prepared in math skills than those children who participated in Head Start. Head Start failed to have an impact on the 40 other measures.

The American public should have nothing to fear from the president’s scaremongering. Rigorous scientific evidence demonstrates that children participating in Head Start perform no better in academic achievement than similar children excluded from participating in the program. Thus, reducing funding or even eliminating the ineffective Head Start program will not harm children. In fact, the Obama administration appears to be delaying the release of a long overdue evaluation of the effectiveness of Head Start on third-grade outcomes.

If there is one program that deserves to be on the chopping block, it is Head Start. 

— David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.