Taxpayers have spent more than $100 billion on Head Start since 1965, but according to the government itself, the program has virtually no lasting benefit for the low-income children it serves.
The Health and Human Services Administration recently released an assessment that compared children in Head Start with those not in the program. The study tracked the progress of 3- and 4-year-old children up through first grade, finding little lasting impact. In their conclusion, the study authors write:
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. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade, a potentially important finding for children’s longer term development.
The report looked at 112 different measures of cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes. Only two of those measures showed a beneficial outcome for 4-year-olds in the program. For 3-year-olds, five of the measures showed a beneficial outcome and one of the measures indicated a negative outcome.
There is, however, a federal education initiative that that has been shown to have a lasting beneficial impact. Children in their third year of participation in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program read at a higher level than their public-school counterparts, “equivalent to 3.1 months of additional learning,” according to the most recent assessment by the Department of Education. And those scholarships cost less than $7,000 per student. Unfortunately, Congress decided to discontinue the D.C. school choice program last year. President Obama said he wanted to do what works in education, but so far he is going along with Congress pursuing exactly the opposite policy.
Additional comment on the HHS study: “Head Start Impact Evanescent – HHS Study,” by Andrew Coulson, Cato-at-Liberty, January 13, 2010; “Head Start and America’s Race to the Top in Education,” by Grover J. Whitehurst, The Gov Monitor, January 24, 2010; and “Head Start Earns an F: No Lasting Impact for Children by First Grade,” by David B. Muhlhausen and Dan Lips, The Heritage Foundation, January 21, 2010.