Head Start has small impact

Head Start produces “minimal, short-term benefits” in a large-scale study, NPR reports. The study compared children in Head Start to a control group of children whose parents had been turned away because local programs were full.

About Joanne


  1. BadaBing says:

    Get rid of it.

  2. Why get rid of it? First, there are many statistically-significant differences, even in this study, that suggest children are benefitting from head start. For example, the students in head start made gains in skills such as letter-naming and spelling when compared to the control group. The children in head start also demonstrated better social-emotional skills (less ‘hyperactive’ and fewer behavior problems). These benefits all have clear implications for school readiness.

    Second, this study is a (so far) a short-term project. The most compelling studies of preschool and head start are the ones that describe long-term effects. In a few years, these researchers will be able to report on how the kids in each group did in first-grade.

  3. Why get rid of it? Because “statistically significant difference” is another way of saying “not much difference” and that’s not enough of a reason to fund the program.

    If you’re using the force of law to fund a program the benefit ought to real, measureable and substantial. Headstart is none of the those, in common with way too many government programs, so ought to be axed.

  4. The study compares Head Start to children receiving other preschool services, not to no preschool services at all. *No preschool at all* is what a lot of low-income kids would get without the program.

  5. “Because “statistically significant difference” is another way of saying “not much difference” and that’s not enough of a reason to fund the program.”

    Did you read the report or are you just making assumptions based on your pre-existing beliefs?

    The achievement gap between head-start eligible children and the national average on the WJ-3 letter-word recognition measure was cut in half. This is after only one year of head start and in comparison with a control group that includes children enrolled in other preschool programs.

    If that’s not a “real, measureable and substantial” result, I don’t know what is.

  6. Making assumptions based on my pre-existing beliefs. It’s all I ever do.

    In the case of Headstart, my pre-existing beliefs tell me that a program that’s been in existance for forty years but hasn’t had to demonstrate measurable results until year thirty-three when Congress tacked a requirement onto the reauthorization bill that there be some demonstration of efficacy, is a program that doesn’t bear too close an examination.

    While you are obviously enthralled by the WJ-3 letter-word recognition gap being cut in half for a year, I’m more interested in A) whether all the people who’ve had to pay for the program have been/are getting their money’s worth, and B) whether the kids committed to the tender mercies of the Head Start program wouldn’t be better off where their parents were willing/able to send them.

    Oh, and by the way, that bump in the WJ-3 letter-word recognition gap? It cost $7,600 in 2004 to achieve and on the basis of the NEAP, by the time the kids hit kindergarden the gap is just as wide as with non-Headstart kids in similar circumstances.

    So, what is it in the way of “real, measurable and substantial” results that society is getting?

  7. Question A is a good one to which I certainly don’t have the answer to. In your opininm, what would be a worthwhile result for $7,600 or so?

    As for point B, it seems that this study answers (or is in the process of answering) your question. The children in head start are being compared to a control group of students who went “where their parents were willing/able to send them,” including other child-care centers, other families, and parent care.

    The results suggest those kids are worse off than the kids enrolled in Head Start.

  8. Chris C. wrote:

    In your opininm, what would be a worthwhile result for $7,600 or so?

    Already answered. I’d zero the program out.

    Common sense would tell you that government programs are destined to be fiscally and programmatically inefficient so the only government programs that should exist are those that must be done and can’t be done by any other entity then government. The child day care business isn’t one of those.

    What the study suggests to me is that there’s a small, transient but measurable improvement in certain narrowly defined areas of education. That has to be balanced against the damage that extracting $7 billion from society causes. That’s a lot of money to spend for a gain that you could lose in the corner of your eye.

  9. SuperSub says:

    The study, while “large-scale,” is flawed in its choice of a control. Children who were rejected for the program are not general population… the possibility exists that the sole act of applying and then being rejected motivated parents to seek other avenues to improve their children’s early learning.
    All the study shows is that Head Start shows marginal success over alternate early intervention methods, not over doing nothing at all.

  10. And then there’s the possibility of the “Hawthorne Effect” since the Head Start programs are aware of their participation in this study.

  11. dhanson says:

    What I find annoying about Allen’s comments (other than his general attitiude of “if the government is doing it it MUST be bad,” is his apparent cluelessness about the difference between a day care environment and a preschool environment. While children may learn things in day care, it isn’t the primary focus, and for low-income parents, the day cares their children attend probably don’t do any planned learning at all. A good preschool on the other hand, can help children in a number of ways and can make that kindergarten transition and, indeed, all further school much easier. Young children are learning –or are capable of learning–an incredible amount. Some people are quick to dismiss this learning because the kids aren’t learning Algebra and Physics. But what children learn in the preschool years forms the foundation for all learning experiences throughout life.

  12. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Head Start produces “minimal, short-term benefits” ‘

    What do you mean – the parent(s)* get free baby sitting –

    Oh you mean for the kids.

  13. Just for the sake of accuracy, I don’t feel that if the government’s doing it it MUST be bad. What I feel is that if the government is doing it “good” and “bad” are immaterial. Obeying the law, obeying the rules and regulations, obeying the dictates of your superiors are all more important then if “good” or “bad” are being done or public money being squandered. Does that clear things up for you?

    With regard to your spirited defense of preschools compared to the low-priced spread, day care.

    It reminds me of the scene in Groundhog Day where Chris Elliot is trying very hard to impress some lovely young thing about the immense difficulties and artistic demands of being a cameraman. It’s not just pointing a camera at stuff. It’s a lot more then that.

    Which is to say: don’t take yourself so seriously.

    If your job description included “running into burning buildings to rescue strangers” or “dying in the defense of the nation” or “preventing airliners filled with thousands of people from crashing into each other” I might be more inclined to accept your view of preschool as being pivotal in the continued existance of western civilzation.

    As it is, you’re helping babies learn to name their body parts and their colors. That warrants a sincere thanks from some mommy or daddy who appreciates your competence, provided you’re competent, a check that clears and not a whole lot else.

    To get back to the thread, my only concern with Head Start is that it live up to the it’s advertising copy and the lack of hard evidence of efficacy leads me to the suspicion that it doesn’t. If that’s the case then the only reason to continue the program is to provide employment for the current staff. Sorry if that’s you but it isn’t a good enough reason.

  14. Dhanson,
    I don’t think you can have a serious discussion about head start’s value and flaws with anyone who dismisses preschool as “babysitting” or teaching kids to “name their body parts and their colors.”

  15. dhanson says:

    I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not a Head Start employee. I don’t work in early childhood education at all. I recognize the value in quality preschools and things that children can learn when given the opportunity.

    I did not so much intend to defend Head Start in my post as to point out the significant difference between daycare and preschool environments. However, I understand that it may not be possible to get that point across to you.

    Maybe if the differences had been taught to you when you were younger…

  16. Oh, a serious discussion is all but impossible but not for the reason you’ve offered. If I’m required to accept as unquestionable certain assumptions then it won’t be a discussion that’ll ensue but a hymn. Thanks but I was raised in the Church of the Common Good and I’m now a confirmed heretic.

    Dhanson, I’m not disappointed that you’re not a Head Start employee. Support of ineffective government programs by their employees is understandable but it’s hardly the only reason people find to support them.

    Some folks can find no fault in a government program that more authority and more resources won’t cure no matter how many times the remedy’s applied. The existance of the program is, of itself, a social good so it’s continued existance is as unquestionable as the rising of the sun. The only issue is whether the program will be fully funded, which is to say handed a blank check, or continue to drag along with budget increases only twice or three times the inflation rate. From observation I’d say that the trait results from a search for evidence of intellectual and/or moral, superiority.

    Now, as to your effort to point out the differences between day care and preschool, you get an “F”.

    I’m sure you find a great deal of substance in vague descriptions of a “foundation for all learning experiences throughout life” but I’d like to point out that most of the human race currently, and all of the human race for most of the our existance, didn’t have to build a foundation for all learning experiences throughout life in preschool. The preschools didn’t exist and the foundation was built without them.

    So, while the necessity for preschools, specifically government-funded preschools, is ever so obvious to you, I assure you you’ll find disagreement among your intellectual and moral inferiors.

  17. Jack Tanner says:

    Actually it’s hard to have a serious discussion with people who use banal platitude as an argument.

    ‘Young children are learning –or are capable of learning–an incredible amount.’

    My kids actually went to both day care and preschool at different times and except for paying for one by check and the other one in cash I’m not sure I could quantify many of the differences, except daycare was a lot more flexible.

    One thing for sure though – you can never underestimate the condescension of the self righteous

    ‘for low-income parents, the day cares their children attend probably don’t do any planned learning at all.’

    Right! It’s like a big rugby scrum! Obviously the best plan for occupying children for 8-9 hours a day is no plan. It’s much easier to supervise a bunch of little kids by giving them nothing to do and God knows the people who work ‘for low-income parents’ are way too dumb and irresponsible to think of anything else.

    My daughter is in a city run preschool predominantly ‘for low-income parents’ and it’s awesome. Play-Doh, swimming, playground, social workers, it’s got it all!

  18. Jack is right – many preschools are in fact nothing more than daycare with a different title. of course, his experience with two one daycare and one preschool shouldn’t lead to any kind of generalization.

    There is quite a bit of research (including the piece referenced by Joanne, though its in preliminary stages) that suggests certain types of preschools lead to cognitive and social gains that are not generally found when 3- and 4-year-olds are not in day care or parent care.
    The research is never conclusive, so the value and degree of these gains can certainly be argued. However, I think it’s pretty clear that preschool isn’t necessarily just daycare.

    Allen’s contention that preschools have not existed for most of human history is correct. However, plenty of worthwhile ideas have not been around for most of human existence, so I don’t find that argument particularly compelling one way or another.

  19. Chris C. wrote:

    plenty of worthwhile ideas have not been around for most of human existence, so I don’t find that argument particularly compelling one way or another.

    And that’s not exactly a spirited defense of the titantic importance of preschool either.

    Look, I don’t really care all that much whether you send your kids to a preschool, a day care center or put them in a Skinner box. Those sorts of decision are unlikely to have any impact on me or society in general and are the proper province of the parent.

    What does have an impact on me and society in general are government programs since they are, by nature, inflexible, inefficient, all but eternal and, sooner or later, destructive of the ends they were created to serve.

    With that in mind, the bar I set for handing a responsibilty over to government is that the job be too important to simply ignore and that it be the sort of responsibilty for which private enterprise is inherently ill-suited.

    Government-supplied preschool fails both those tests.

  20. Mike in Texas says:

    From the article (buried near the end):

    In the 3-year-old sample, Head Start reduced the use of physical discipline when children misbehaved for mothers who had first given birth before the age of 19. In both the 3- and 4-year-old group, Head Start led mothers who had first given birth after the age of 19 to spend more time reading to their children, and to take them to a greater variety of cultural enrichment activities.

    I would view these as significant positive developments brought upon by Head Start.

    Also For children in the 3-year-old group, race and ethnicity appear to influence the extent of Head Start’s impact, with particularly positive impacts noted in several domains for African American and Hispanic children

    Strangely enough this was not found for the 4 year olds.

  21. dhanson says:

    You’re right. I did not present any specifics in my defense of preschools. I deserve the F you gave me. Probably I shouldn’t have posted at all, but since I didn’t see you citing any specifics in your attacks, I didn’t stop to think that I’d be held to a higher standard. Sorry.

    And, since as you state, preschools didn’t exist for most of human existence, there is no value in them now. Or, by that logic, is anything else developed since humans started down the road that’s led us here.

  22. Mike in Texas says:

    low-priced spread, day care

    Day care low priced? How long has it been since you’ve had a kid in daycare?

  23. Allen,
    I’ve never been interested in proving the “titanic importance” of preschool – i’m not convinced one way or another as to whether the government should be funding head start to the extent that it is.
    What i’m interested in is finding out what it’s good for. From the beginning you’ve stated head start doesn’t provide real, measureable and substantial” results, and that’s what I have a problem with. The bulk of evidence regarding preschools and head start (including the study joanne cites) does suggest real and substantial effects.

    Whether or not that’s a good value or good for society is subjective. Your opinion is as good or better than mine.

  24. dhanson wrote:

    Probably I shouldn’t have posted at all, but since I didn’t see you citing any specifics in your attacks, I didn’t stop to think that I’d be held to a higher standard. Sorry.

    I’m just quoting from the first decent study of Head Start and the study makes it clear that the benefits are modest and seem to trail off pretty quickly. In fact, there’s earlier, although less comprehensive, work that finds no distinction between Head Start kids and non-preschool kids by the time they hit eight or nine years of age.

    The program’s been around for forty years. Don’t you think a substantial, or even modest, difference would have shown up by now? I’m willing to be convinced but you’ve got to have something to show and so far all I’ve gotten is how important Head Start is with nothing in the way of substantiation. It’s just a social good that brooks no criticism.

    Or, by that logic, is anything else developed since humans started down the road that’s led us here.

    Oh, it’s easy to tell the things that make a real difference from the things that don’t. If something makes the lives of people easier, more comfortable, more fun, safer, whatever, it doesn’t require subsidies to get people on board. Once the value of the development is clear you can’t keep them from participating. Cars, planes, penicillin, computers, air conditioning and myriad other developments haven’t requried subsidies to maintian public interest. The value is real and substantial so people avail themselves of that value.

    On that basis, the value of preschool, over and above its value as day care, is anything but clear. But the cost to society is precisely calculable in terms of dollars and less calculable in terms of the erosive effects of income-redistribution.

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    Day care low priced? How long has it been since you’ve had a kid in daycare?

    Take it up with dhanson. That’s the source of the unflattering comparison.

    Chris C. wrote:

    The bulk of evidence regarding preschools and head start (including the study joanne cites) does suggest real and substantial effects.

    Point to it. The linked study makes it clear that the difference are small although statistically significant. “Statistical significance” means the results are above that you might expect from a random distribution of the data. If the program generates a little benefit for a little while, that’s not enough of a value to society to continue with the program.

    Your opinion is as good or better than mine.

    My opinion is that a subsidized program that can’t demonstrate significant results is a program that’s proven itself unworthy of dipping into the pockets of the tax payer. This program has had nearly forty years to demonstrate results and so far, hasn’t. You tell me how long a program like that should continue raiding the public purse?

  25. Allen,
    It simply isn’t true that Head Start hasn’t been studied for 40 years. I would start with the High/Scope studies from the 70’s. Long-term studies like that are probably most useful in evaluating the program’s effectiveness.
    The program has also undergone several reforms in its history due to evaluations. I think it’s currently better in many ways than it was thirty years ago.

    As for your first point, the study does not make it clear that the differences are ‘small’. Whether or not effect sizes are ‘small’, ‘medium’, and ‘large’ is actually an arbitrary judgment – .2 and .5 are not significant in themsevles.
    Given the mixed nature of the control group and the short period of time, I actually interpret the differences (ie, parent literacy reports) as moderately large.

  26. I guess my standards for measuring the success of a government program are a little tougher then.

    It’s nice that the Head Start moms aren’t smacking their kids quite as much but the results ought to be more obvious, easily measured and more clearly of benefit to society.

    What percentage of Head Start kids have served jail time when measured against non-Head Start kids? What percentage have finished high school? What’s their comparitive median income?

    The amount of money that’s been dumped into this program and it’s like has been substantial. The results ought to be similarly substantial.