‘Twas the Friday before Christmas, and while most Americans were enjoying time with family and friends, the bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were stirring quietly about, preparing to release its long-overdue evaluation of the Head Start program.
Head Start is an $8 billion per year federal preschool program, designed to improve the kindergarten readiness of low-income children. Since its inception in1965, taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on the program.
But HHS’ latest Head Start Impact Study found taxpayers aren’t getting a good return on this “investment.” According to the congressionally-mandated report, Head Start has little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of its participants. In fact, on a few measures, access to the program actually produced negative effects.
The HHS’ scientifically-rigorous study tracked 5,000 children who were randomly assigned to either a group receiving Head Start services or a group that did not participate in Head Start. It followed their progression from ages three or four through the end of third grade. The third-grade evaluation is a continuation to HHS’ first-grade study, which followed children through the end of first grade.
The first-grade evaluation found that any benefits the children may have accrued while in the Head Start program had dissipated by the time they reached first grade.
The study also revealed that Head Start failed to improve the literacy, math and language skills of the four year-old cohort and had a negative impact on the teacher-assessed math ability of the three-year-old cohort.
Based on this track record, HHS and Head Start devotees should not have been surprised to learn that the results of the third-grade evaluation were even worse. If the impacts of Head Start had all but disappeared by first grade, how could they suddenly reappear by the end of third grade?
Not only were the third-grade evaluation results poor, so was the department’s handling of the study. HHS sat on the results for four years. All that time, taxpayers were kept in the dark while their tax dollars continued to fund a completely ineffective program.
HHS had finished collecting all the data in 2008. Despite persistent prodding by members of Congress, the Department did not make the report (coyly dated October 2012) public until the Friday before Christmas. The timing couldn’t have been better if your goal is to get minimal attention.
Surely HHS was not eager to release yet another report showing that the feel-good Head Start program doesn’t work. But numbers don’t lie.
The third-grade follow-up study found that access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effects on cognitive ability, including numerous measures of reading, language and math ability.
The evaluation also examined the program’s effect on social-emotional development. It found that children in the 4-year-old group actually reported worse peer relations in third grade than their non-Head Start counterparts.
There was also no statistically significant effect on teacher-reported, social-emotional development of children. Alarmingly, there was a negative effect on the 4-year-old cohort. Teachers reported “strong evidence of an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms.” Moreover, Head Start also failed to improve the parenting outcomes and child-health outcomes of participants.
The bottom line: Washington’s 48-year experiment with federal preschool has failed to deliver long-lasting, positive developments for its participants. Still, many in Congress argue that the way to fix this is to increase funding for Head Start.
And that’s exactly what they did in the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. It contains $100 million in new funding for Head Start – ostensibly to provide funds to Head Start centers in the Northeast affected by the storm. According to the Senate appropriations committee, that $100 million will be divvied up among 265 centers—an average of more than $377,000 per center.
Head Start fails children and costs taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money every year. And it’s just one of 69 federal preschool programs.
Head Start doesn’t need more money. It needs to be put on the chopping block. If Congress remains intent on funding preschool, it should at least refrain from relegating low-income children to underperforming Head Start centers. Far better to let these kids take their “share” of Head Start funding to a private preschool provider of their own choosing.
Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation.