HHS Releases Negative Head Start Evaluation Four Years Late

Published January 15, 2013

In January, Congress voted to send an extra $100 million to Head Start, a few weeks after Department of Health and Human Services released its long-overdue evaluation of the federal preschool program, finding it has no benefit to children past first grade.

Researchers finished collecting study data in 2008, but didn’t release the report until December 2012, with an October date. Head Start began in 1965 as a small summer program and has cost taxpayers $180 billion since then.

“President Barack Obama has promised to show fiscal restraint and to reward ‘evidence-based’ education programs. The evidence is overwhelming that Head Start does not offer disadvantaged kids a significant advantage, despite costing more than $8 billion a year,” said Lisa Snell, education and child welfare director at the Reason Foundation. “The federal government has failed to offer value for preschool dollars and should no longer be in the early education business.” 

The 2012 report used the most scientifically rigorous methods, called “random assignment,” tracking 5,000 three- and four-year-old children through the end of first grade. Children were either assigned to a control group that did not attend Head Start, or to an experiment group that participated. It followed up a 2010 Head Start Impact Study that reported almost identical results.

In short, by third grade children who attend Head Start can’t be distinguished from their peers who didn’t.

Expensive and Ineffective
Specifically, Head Start failed to raise the cognitive development of four-year-olds, and reduced three-year-olds’ math abilities. It also failed to improve kids’ social-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes.

When the children reached third grade, the evaluation found similarly lackluster results:

Head Start had no long-term impact on the cognitive ability of either the three- or four-year-old cohort, and failed to improve the reading, language, and math ability of participants.

“Politicians and policy experts need to recognize that Head Start produces harm. Based on teacher assessments, participation in Head Start is associated with decreased math abilities, being more likely to be shy or socially reticent, and a higher degree of unfavorable emotional symptoms than similar children without access to the program. This defective program should be terminated,” said David Muhlhausen, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

The evaluation also found Head Start failed to change four out of five social-emotional behaviors parents reported, and found no statistically significant effect on teacher-reported social-emotional development of children.

Suspicious Handling
HHS not only released the study four years after collecting its data, it did so on a media dead day: the Friday before Christmas.

The delay happened “because the news was not as favorable toward Head Start as people would like. It has been ‘eased out,'” said Nicolas Zill, a psychologist and former head of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat. Westat conducted the Head Start evaluations, and Zill oversaw previous editions.

University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene, one of few who noticed the report’s release, excoriated the “federal government’s abuse of research” on his blog.

“It does seem to be the case that the current effort to hold more programs accountable stems directly from the Impact studies. So while that is a little bit heartening, we still have a long way to go,” Zill said.

Did the HHS need four years to finish its evaluation? “You could certainly do the main analyses within a year. No question about it,” Zill said.

Other Reports Show Fraud
This latest study also comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealing fraud in Head Start. The GAO sent undercover investigators to Head Start centers across the country and found program employees counseling parents to lie that their incomes were lower to appear eligible.

The $100 million Head Start earmark was tucked inside the second Hurricane Sandy spending bill, along with many other earmarks. According to the Senate appropriations committee, that money will go to 265 Head Start centers in areas affected by the storm, at a cost of more than $377,000 per site. 


Image by Harris County Public Library.