Out of Control Policy Blog

Head Start Fail: Federal Preschool Program Does Not Give Kids Leg Up

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner concluded in their bestseller Freakonomics, based on an extensive regression anlysis, that the federal Head Start preschool program doesn't work. They write, “Instead of spending the day with his own undereducated, overworked mother, the typical Head Start child spends the day with someone else’s undereducated, overworked mother.”

What Freakonomics didn't mention, but Douglas Bresharov recently did in the New York Times, "to keep a child in Head Start full-time, year-round, costs about $22,600, as opposed to an average cost of $9,500 in a day care center."

The just-released large-scale random assignment study of Head Start confirms once again that the $7 billion a year federal preschool program provides meager benefits to children at huge costs to taxpayers.

As the Heritage Foundation's Lindsey Burke explains:

Taxpayers have been on the hook for more than $100 billion for the Head Start program since 1965. This federal evaluation, which effectively shows no lasting impact on children after first grade and no difference between those children who attended Head Start and those who did not, should call into question the merits of increasing funding for the program, which the Obama administration recently did as part of the so-called “stimulus” bill.

Education researcher Jay P. Greene offers an in-depth and useful analysis of the HHS study results:

The study used a gold-standard, random assignment design and had a very large nationally representative sample. This was a well done study.

For students who were randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 4, the researchers collected 19 measures of cognitive impacts at the end of kindergarten and 22 measures when those students finished 1st grade. Of those 41 measures, only 1 was significant and positive. The remaining 40 showed no statistically significant difference. The one significant effect was for receptive vocabulary, which showed no significant advantage for Head Start students after kindergarten but somehow re-emerged at the end of 1st grade.

The study used the more relaxed p< .1 standard for statistical significance, so we could have seen about 4 significant differences by chance alone and only saw 1. That positive effect had an effect size of .09, which is relatively modest.

For students randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 3, the researchers also collected 41 measures of lasting cognitive effects. This time they found 2 statistically significant positive effects and 1 statistically significant negative effect. For the students who began at age 3 they showed a .08 effect size benefit from Head Start in oral comprehension after first grade and a .26 effect size benefit in Spanish vocabulary after kindergarten but a .19 effect size decline in math ability at the end of kindergarten. Again, 38 of the 41 measures of lasting effects showed no difference and the few significant effects, which could be produced by chance, showed mixed results.

It is safe to say from this very rigorous evaluation that Head Start had no lasting effect on the academic preparation of students.

There are several significant issues this Head Start study brings up for the Obama Administration and for investments in early education more generally.

Further, the HHS data was suppossed to be released so others could scrutinize the data. As Education Week reports: The federal government was supposed to have released data two years ago to scientists so they could analyze the information, but such data have not been released as part of the impact study. It is not possible to tell by the study whether Head Start students are “humming along at the national average” in terms of their cognitive learning, or if they are “at the 10th percentile” on standardized measures of cognitive learning.

  • Ignores President Obama's Promise of Evidence-Based Education Policy. As Mathew Ladner points out on March 10, 2009, Pres. Barack Obama gave a major education speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In that speech, he declared that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.” Yet the economic stimulus in 2009 gave Head Start and Early Head Start a boost of $2.1 billion while the much more cost-effective DC Scholarship program that has evidence that it works was defunded and the Obama administration refused to stand up to the evidence or for the kids enrolled in the program.
  • Preschool Advocates Remain Delusional. Preschool advocates continue to suffer from what Stanford's Caroline Hoxby calls "cardiac evidence." (We know in our hearts that this is right.) As the title of the Education Week article on the Head Start study demonstrates: "Head Start Study Finds Brief Learning Gains."

Um, Hello? until first grade...

In fact the two quotes in Education Week from the Obama Administration folks tell the rest of the deluded story.

Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, which oversees the federal preschool program, said in a statement about the study that “for Head Start to achieve its full potential, we must improve its quality and promote high standards across all early-childhood programs.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seconded the need for improvement in the program. “These results make it clear that we need to build a more coordinated system of early care and education, and to focus on key improvements to teaching and learning in the early grades,” he said in a statement.

Please! $100 billion? Forty years? $22,000 a child? What else would it take?

  • Moratorium on Early Education Spending from the Feds. We should not give early education any more federal dollars. If President Obama wants to fund different early education programs he should take the money from Head Start.
  • Give the Head Start Money to the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Let's just be clear, Head Start with zero evidence costs $7 billion a year. The DC Voucher program with gold standard evidence, that shows two-year growth in reading for voucher students cost $14 million a year.

As education researcher Mathew Ladner states: President Obama will surely be calling for the transfer of Head Start funding into the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program any second now.

Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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