Does Head Start Make a Difference?

Published October 1, 1998

In operation for 33 years at a cost of over $30 billion, the federal government’s touted Head Start early childhood development program has never been subjected to a valid, useful study of how well it works.

Legislation to reauthorize Head Start–at a cost of $4.7 billion–is currently pending in Congress. Controversy surrounds the bill, which originally included proposals to provide vouchers for preschoolers to attend programs other than Head Start; remove the requirement to pay union wages on Head Start construction; and bar from Head Start participation children whose mothers did not help locate the child’s father for financial support. Under threat of Democratic floor opposition, GOP House leaders succumbed on all three issues, prompting a threat of floor opposition from the bill’s primary author, Rep. Frank Riggs (R-California).

What is missing from the reauthorization debate, say Heritage Foundation analysts Nina Shokraii and Patrick Fagan, is legislative support for an investigation into the effectiveness of Head Start. The Head Start budget proposal contains no provisions for program evaluation.

“Until sound impact studies are conducted on the current Head Start program, fundamental questions about program quality will remain,” concluded a 1997 General Accounting Office report, “Head Start: Research Provides Little Information on Impact of Current Program.”

Of even greater concern, write the two researchers, is that the US Department of Health and Human Services “is unable to describe precisely what Head Start is supposed to accomplish,” according to the five-year strategic plan submitted by HHS to Congress last year.

Although advocates of Head Start maintain that research conducted prior to 1976 proved the effectiveness of the program, the GAO report determined that those early studies “do not conclusively establish the impact of today’s Head Start program, because today’s program differs from that of the 1960s and early 1970s. . . . Later studies offered to support Head Start’s impact do not provide enough evidence to conclude that current Head Start is effective.”

The 1997 GAO report concluded:

  • Little research exists on the impact of the Head Start program, and much of what does exist is either out of date or methodologically suspect;
  • Planned research will not provide enough information to assess the program’s effectiveness;
  • Despite methodological difficulties, research should focus on the effectiveness of the program.

“Evaluating outcome at the national program level . . . is the only way to determine with certainty whether the program is making an overall difference in any particular outcome area,” note the Heritage Foundation researchers.

Head Start was launched in 1965 and currently serves over 800,000 children a year.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].