It is a little-appreciated irony of history that the big-bang theory was at first welcomed by Christian thinkers such as Pope Pius XII, and rejected by such scientific icons as Albert Einstein, for the same reason: It suggests a creation event, or at least leaves room for one, which, to the mind of Einstein, a devotee of the steady-state theory of the universe, was intellectually unacceptable, even though the evidence supported it. Such is the well-earned prestige of the scientific calling that Barack Obama, not known to be a man of science, famously promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in political life, unlike those flat-earthers in the Bush administration. We all adore science — right up until the moment it tells us something we do not wish to hear.
During his State of the Union address, President Obama demanded a massive expansion of federal spending on pre-kindergarten education, just a few weeks after having attempted to bury a report from the Department of Health and Human Services finding that the largest program in the field, Head Start, produces negligible results, and sometimes produces negative results. The study, released on the Friday before Christmas so as to minimize public attention to it, was hardly the first of its kind. The best scientific research we have — going back decades now — finds that Head Start does not provide the promised benefits, and indeed provides few if any benefits at all despite its extravagant annual cost of $23,000 per student, well more than double the cost of many highly regarded private schools and full-day kindergartens. Studies of early-childhood-education programs many orders of magnitude more intensive than Head Start come to similar conclusions.
The results of the HHS study will be of no surprise to anybody who has followed the research on Head Start and similar programs. The “impacts” documented in the study were transitory, vanishing entirely by the early stages of elementary-school education. And some of the impacts were negative; for instance, members of the three-year-old cohort who participated in Head Start were less likely than those in the control group to achieve regular grade promotion. That probably is not evidence that Head Start hurt the three-year-olds; it is more probable that, by random chance, students more likely to be held back were assigned to the Head Start group, and the benefits of Head Start were not consistent enough or large enough to overcome the difference. (The result was considered “statistically significant,” but that merely means it is unlikely — not impossible — for it to be the result of chance.) But the inability of Head Start to overcome the effects of randomness is damning enough in itself.
It was not the American Enterprise Institute or Cato but President Obama’s own Department of Health and Human Services that concluded: “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. . . . Similar conclusions about the size and lack of persistence of early impacts were reported in a recent broader meta-analysis of early childhood interventions.”
It is no surprise that the administration would wish to ignore these findings. It handled another educational study in a similarly underhanded fashion: The administration intentionally delayed the release of a Department of Education study documenting the effectiveness of the D.C. Opportunity scholarship program, which is abominated by the teachers’ unions, which played a large role in making Barack Obama president because it puts power into the hands of parents rather than public-school administrators. Head Start, by contrast, puts money into the pockets of educators’ unions, which recycle those funds into campaign donations, overwhelmingly to Democrats. One of these programs provides documented benefits, both educational and financial, while one does not. But the Obama administration, in contravention of the best scientific evidence we have, is poised to shunt billions of dollars into the ineffective program while strangling the effective one.
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.