The White House’s Standard for Social Programs: Hints of Success Are Good Enough

During last week’s unveiling of the president’s budget proposal, the administration touted continued spending on a program called Early Head Start, which offers health and educational services to children ages 0–3 and their parents. As with the traditional Head Start program for preschoolers, Early Head Start has been evaluated using rigorous experimental techniques. And, as with Head Start, Early Head Start shows some initial positive effects that quickly fade to nothing.

So why does the White House not only want to continue funding Early Head Start, but to boast about it as well? One answer is politics, which inevitably affect the way policy is made. But it would be wrong to say that the administration entirely ignores program evaluations. Consider yet another early childhood program, Even Start, which provided funding for parenting classes, literacy programs, and other work for children aged 0–3.

In 2003, a randomized experiment failed to show any first-year gains from Even Start. Program effects could not fade out because there were no effects to begin with! To its credit, the Obama administration called for canceling Even Start, and Congress eventually agreed.

The administration’s position appears to be that ineffective social programs deserve continued federal support as long as they show tantalizing hints of maybe one day working in some other way, shape, or form. Temporary gains could be viewed as one such hint. Positive impacts on certain subgroups — even when the effect on the overall sample is zero — could be another. Even Start showed no hints at all, so it got the axe.

Perhaps Ethan, 4, a Head Start student in Santa Barbara, Calif.,  could help the White House with their program assessments.

Meanwhile, Head Start and Early Head Start continue to receive support, albeit with constant modifications. Although reporters never asked the White House to address the Head Start evaluation that failed to find significant effects, the administration did begin encouraging “high standards” at Head Start centers. The hope — not backed by evidence — is that Head Start’s temporary impacts might become permanent if administrators do things like increase instruction time and hire more college graduates (at a higher cost, of course).

Needless to say, guesses and hope are not enough. If the federal government must be involved in early childhood programs, then they ought to do what David Armor and Sonia Sousa’s suggested in the most recent issue of National Affairs: Take a portion of the money currently spent on pre-K and use it to fund a series of large-scale randomized experiments that will give us more hard evidence as to which programs, if any, are cost-effective for taxpayers.

And here’s one addendum to that suggestion: Do not let HHS oversee any of the experiments. The department politicized the Head Start Impact Study to the point of loosening the standard for statistical significance and insisting on myriad hypothesis tests. HHS then took years to publish the study’s inconvenient truths, before finally burying the release on the Friday before Christmas. Let the more reputable Institute of Education Sciences administer the evaluations.

Jason Richwine — Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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