Study: Head Start Has No Lasting Impact From $167 Billion Spent

Published January 30, 2010

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released the results of a long-overdue evaluation of the federal Head Start program, four years after it was completed.

Data collection for the federally mandated Head Start Impact Study, which began in 2002, was completed in 2006. The randomized experiment measured the program’s impact on a nationally representative sample of 5,000 children. The federal Head Start program, created in 1965, provides comprehensive preschool services, including health and nutrition services, to more than 900,000 low-income children nationwide. With more than $9 billion in annual funding, Head Start has received more than $167 billion from taxpayers since 1965.

The national evaluation was the first scientifically rigorous study to examine the program’s long-term impacts on children.

Feather Touch

The study found the program’s few benefits—a small, positive impact on vocabulary—dissolved by the time participants reached first grade.

“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,” the authors wrote. “However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole.”

Dr. Jay P. Greene, endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the evaluation revealed children who participated in Head Start sustained virtually no lasting results.

“The study used a gold-standard, random-assignment design and had a very large, nationally representative sample,” Greene said. “For students who were randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 4, the researchers collected 19 measures of cognitive impacts at the end of kindergarten and 22 measures when those students finished first grade. Of those 41 measures, only one was significant and positive. The remaining 40 showed no statistically significant difference.”

Because of the more relaxed standard of statistical significance used in the study, even the impact on vocabulary could have happened by chance, he notes.

Lax Methods?

“For students randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 3, the researchers also collected 41 measures of lasting cognitive effects. Again, 38 of the 41 measures of lasting effects showed no difference, and the few significant effects—which could be produced by chance—showed mixed results,” Greene said.

This could be a result of what Greene notes was the HHS’ more relaxed standard for measuring statistical significance.

Andrew Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, expressed similar concerns.

“After controlling for the proliferation of false positives that you’d expect in a study that reports dozens and dozens of test results, the authors of the Head Start Impact Study found the program had no statistically significant effects at the end of 1st grade in any area,” Coulson said. “Not in cognitive outcomes, not in socio-emotional outcomes, not in parenting practices.

“Completely unmoved by these results, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared that Head Start remains ‘a key part of the Obama administration’s strategic focus on early learning,’ ” Coulson continued. “Translation: Damn the kids, taxpayers, and evidence, full speed ahead!”

Double Standard

Coulson thinks the Obama administration also uses a double standard when deciding whether to expand or end certain education programs.

“Compare [the treatment of Head Start] to the administration’s treatment of the DC Opportunity Scholarships voucher program. Poor kids attending private schools for three years under the OSP read two grade levels ahead of their peers who remained in public schools, and the program costs taxpayers a quarter of what DC spends on public education,” Coulson said. “Democrats in Congress, with only a handful of exceptions, voted to kill it, and the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan let it die.

“All this from the president who has repeatedly promised ‘to eliminate programs that don’t work’ and champion efficient and successful ones. It’s enough to make you doubt politicians’ promises,” he concluded.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.