|NUMBER 289||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||FEBRUARY 2010|
|Head Start Earns an 'F'|
|No Lasting Impact for Children by First Grade|
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
The 2010 Head Start Impact Study
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
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
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:
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.