Politics & Policy

Head Start: Still Useless

Head Start classroom in New York City
Pat Moynihan understood the problem years ago.


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.

#ad#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.


Yet the facts about the matter are well established. Our $8 billion–per–year “investment” in Head Start ($180 billion in all since its creation) yields no discernable advantage for the children it is meant to help.

Questions concerning Head Start’s effectiveness have plagued it throughout its history. And, sadly, so long as there have been gold-plated, double-blind, peer-reviewed evaluations of Head Start, there have been politicians who would rather use the program to advance their careers than confront the real-world consequences of failing 1 million poor kids each year.

#ad#As far back as 1969, a Nixon White House aide by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan engaged in this sort of mischief. As editor Steven Weisman notes in a recently published collection of Moynihan’s letters, Moynihan sought to make sure that “the press gave Nixon credit for supporting programs for the poor.”

Alerted that a series of very critical evaluations of Head Start and other Great Society anti-poverty programs was imminent, Moynihan enlisted New York Times columnist James (Scotty) Reston in a little damage control. “[A] succession of research reports,” he wrote Reston, “will argue that the various specific undertakings [to alleviate poverty] have failed.” The “most consequential” study, he warned, will find “that Head Start does not work.” Specifically, Head Start “does nothing for the education achievement, attitudes, motivation, or whatever of poor children.” This most recent study, he acknowledged, “is the biggest and best to date” and, perhaps because of its authoritativeness, will cause Congress to react with “frustration, even disgust” and conclude that Head Start has been “oversold.” The program’s true believers, on the other hand, will man the bulwarks, deny the study’s findings, and accuse the programs’ detractors of “racism, cruelty to children, and methodological inadequacies.”

Rather than stoke the fires of a vicious ideological battle that would threaten Head Start’s future, Moynihan implored Reston to convince his colleagues at the Times “to be careful in reporting these issues in the next few months.” After all, he concluded, “complex problems are not always depicted as such in the press.”

Half a century has passed and the media remain as “careful” as ever in their coverage of Head Start. Remarkably, the release of the new study elicited no discernable press coverage. Nor has it prompted experts in early-childhood development or pro-Head Start lawmakers to reassess the government’s track record in alleviating poverty. Aside from a useful overview of the study’s findings by two Heritage experts, the only reaction comes from a Reuters op-ed written by Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, the prime Head Start lobbying entity. Remarkably, after examining the study, Vinci perfunctorily dismissed it. “So,” she concluded, “the answer is — yes, Head Start works.”

Head Start’s 1 million kids deserve better. Washington should take the HHS study seriously and look for more effective ways to offer poor children a realistic chance to surmount poverty and achieve their dreams.

 Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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