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Education Reporter

Head Start Earns an 'F'
No Lasting Impact for Children by First Grade
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by David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. and Dan Lips

The federal government spent at least $25 billion on federal preschool and child care programs in 2009, but President Obama has pressed for significant increases in preschool spending. The Administration approved $5 billion in new early education and child care spending in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the Stimulus). Congress may soon approve $8 billion in new spending on the Early Learning Challenge Fund in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (H.R. 3221), which has already passed the House of Representatives.

Before Congress creates a new preschool program and increases spending on preschool and child care, it should evaluate whether the current programs are working. Topping the list of programs to review should be Head Start, which serves approximately 900,000 low-income children at a cost of $9 billion per year. A recently released experimental evaluation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that Head Start has had little to no effect on cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of participating children. For the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had a beneficial effect on only two outcomes (1.8 percent) out of 112 measures. For the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had one harmful impact (0.9 percent) and five (4.5 percent) beneficial impacts out of 112 measures.

Rather than create a new federal preschool program, Congress should focus on terminating, consolidating, and reforming existing programs to serve children's needs better and to improve efficiency for taxpayers. Head Start, 1965-Present
Created as part of the War on Poverty in 1965, Head Start is a preschool community-based program funded by the federal government. By providing education, nutrition, and health services, Head Start is intended to provide a boost to disadvantaged children before they enter elementary school. Its goal is to help disadvantaged children catch up to children living in more fortunate circumstances. From fiscal year (FY) 1965 to FY 2009, Congress spent $167.5 billion in 2009 dollars on Head Start. From FY 2000 to FY 2009, the average annual appropriation for Head Start was $7.6 billion. Despite Head Start's long life, the program had never undergone a thorough, scientifically rigorous evaluation of its effectiveness until Congress mandated an evaluation in 1998. The Head Start Impact Study began in 2002, and the results released in 2010 are disappointing.

The 2010 Head Start Impact Study
Is Head Start worth more than $7 billion per year? The 2010 Head Start Impact Study found that Head Start largely failed to improve the cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes compared to the outcomes of similar children. The authors disappointingly concluded: "In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole."

While the results of the 2010 study have been known to officials within the Department of Health and Human Services since the end of the Bush Administration, Congress added $1 billion to the original $7.5 billion in FY 2009 funding for Head Start with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Attempts to Undercut the Study Findings
Some may argue that other research that directly assessed the Head Start performance shows that the program is effective. Research based on the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) found that Head Start children made gains in vocabulary, math, and writing skills during the Head Start program year. However, the research design of FACES is inadequate for determining the program's effectiveness.

Without a control group, FACES assesses the academic skills of Head Start children at the start and end of the program year. In the scientific literature, this evaluation design is called the one-group pretest-posttest design. This design has poor internal validity because of its inability to rule out rival hypotheses that may have caused the gains.

On the other hand, the use of random assignment and a control group in the 2010 Head Start Impact Study equally distributes potential influences between the intervention group and control group.

Another argument offered to undercut the 2010 study's kindergarten and first-grade findings is that the program produces gains, but those gains fade out due to Head Start students attending poorly performing elementary and middle schools. This assumption is based on research by Professors Valerie E. Lee of the University of Michigan and Susanna Loeb of Stanford University. Using a nationally representative sample of all eighth graders, Professors Lee and Loeb found that former Head Start participants attended lower-quality schools compared to the schools attended by students who had attended other preschool programs or did not attend preschool programs. However, the finding that Head Start students go on to attend worse schools than other students is not surprising. Children living in impoverished, socially disorganized neighborhoods are more likely than children in wealthier neighborhoods to attend lower-performing schools.

The potential suggestion that this finding explains why the 2010 Head Start Impact Study found no effect on kindergarten and first-grade academic achievement is dubious. The fact that former Head Start students attend poorly performing schools should not affect the results of the experimental evaluation because the evaluation assembled similarly situated children and randomly assigned them to intervention and control groups. Random assignment establishes equivalency on pre-existing differences between the intervention and control groups (the groups have similar socioeconomic backgrounds). Because the intervention and control groups are equal on pre-existing differences, it is highly unlikely that the schools attended by the intervention group after participation in Head Start were systematically worse than the schools attended by the control group. For this argument to hold any credence, one must assume that children in the intervention group were systematically sorted into worse schools than members of the similarly situated control group.

The Forthcoming Third-Grade Impact Study
Following this new impact evaluation of Head Start's effect on kindergarten and first-grade students, the national evaluation is designed to continue following students' performance through the end of third grade. The results of the forthcoming third-grade impact evaluation will shed further light on the question of whether Head Start is effective and provides lasting benefits.

Members of Congress should request that the Department of Health and Human Services complete this third-grade evaluation in a timely fashion and present the findings to Congress and the public immediately upon completion. There is reason to believe that the 2010 study of first-grade students was not completed or published in a timely fashion. According to the report, data collection for the kindergarten and first-grade evaluation was completed in 2006 — nearly four years before its results were made public. For the national impact evaluation of third-grade students, data collection was conducted during the springs of 2007 and 2008. Results from this evaluation should be published as soon as possible.

Taxpayers are spending considerable sums on Head Start and other early childhood education programs. Policymakers should be basing their decisions about Head Start and other preschool programs on the most useful and up-to-date empirical evidence possible. What Members of Congress and the Administration Should Do

President Barack Obama has declared that he is willing to eliminate "government programs shown to be wasteful or ineffective." Further, he has asserted that "there will be no sacred cows, and no pet projects. All across America, families are making hard choices, and it's time their government did the same." President Obama was correct to call for placing wasteful and ineffective programs on the chopping block. Given that scientifically rigorous research demonstrates that Head Start is ineffective, Head Start is an ideal candidate for the budget chopping block.

If Head Start is not terminated, Congress and the Obama Administration should reform the program (and other federal early childhood education programs) to improve their impact for targeted students and to increase efficiency for federal and state taxpayers. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office identified 69 federal programs that provide support for pre-kindergarten and child care. According to a conservative estimate, the federal government will spend more than $25 billion on these programs in FY 2009.

Despite these existing programs and the new empirical evidence confirming Head Start's ineffectiveness, Congress and the Obama Administration may soon authorize $8 billion in new funding for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which is included in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September. This Early Learning Challenge Fund would award competitive grants to states that expand early childhood education programs.

Rather than create a new federal preschool program, Congress should focus on reforming and improving the existing federal programs for early childhood education. Congress should:

  1. End ineffective programs and consolidate duplicative programs.

  2. Reform the remaining federal early child education and child care programs to serve children better. Congress could accomplish this in a number of ways. For example, the Head Start program could be reformed to grant families greater ability to use their children's $7,300 share of Head Start funding to enroll in a preschool program of choice. In addition, states should be granted more autonomy in how they use funding for Head Start and other federal early childhood education and child care programs to benefit students. Across the country, many states are enacting early childhood education programs. States should be granted the flexibility and autonomy to consolidate and coordinate federal and state programs to best meet students' needs.

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis and Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.

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