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In Preschool Debate, Politics Trumps Evidence

In Preschool Debate, Politics Trumps Evidence

By Jason Richwine & Lindsey Burke - April 22, 2013

“What the Impact Study clearly shows is that Head Start does its job.” The National Head Start Association (NHSA) made this pronouncement at the end of last year. It was a strange thing to say, given that the study in question showed the exact opposite.

But such a strong disconnect between rhetoric and evidence is standard fare when it comes to the politics of preschool. As President Obama pushes a major expansion of federal involvement in preschool, it’s worth reflecting on the inflated rhetoric, false promises, and disregard of hard evidence that plague our national discourse on the issue.

Head Start, as the flagship federal preschool program, is the perfect case study. Started as a small summer program in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative, Head Start originally enrolled about 560,000 children on an operating budget of about $1 billion. Today, more than 900,000 children are enrolled in Head Start, and the program’s operating budget has grown to nearly $8 billion per year. Over the same time period, the NHSA has evolved and grown into an umbrella organization that lobbies Congress to spend billions of dollars on Head Start each year.

Perhaps the most effective part of Head Start’s marketing is the name itself. It’s a simple and powerful metaphor for something that all parents want: a way to give their kids the extra preparation they need to face the world. And Head Start’s modus operandi -- targeting young children before they hit kindergarten -- fits with the conventional wisdom that children are easier to influence at younger ages.

But does the program work? At the behest of Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conducted a “gold standard” experiment to answer that question. Researchers compared the growth and development of children randomly granted access to Head Start against a large control group of children who had applied for the program but were not given access due to space constraints.

By first grade, there were essentially no differences in cognitive or social development between the two groups, and the third-grade follow-up study came to the same depressing conclusion. As with many other social programs that sounded promising before being subjected to a rigorous experimental evaluation, the magnitude of the treatment effect is zero.

Those are the facts. Now enter the politics.

After the most recent HHS study was released, the NHSA set the tone with some unusually brazen spin. Here is how its press release begins: “What the Impact Study clearly shows is that Head Start does its job -- it gets at-risk children ready for kindergarten in every aspect that the study measured.”

This is almost Orwellian. The NHSA is referring to the fact that Head Start participants initially show gains over non-participants during the preschool years. The effects then fade out entirely by first grade. The whole purpose of getting children ready for kindergarten is presumably so that they can perform better once they are there. But they don’t. So in what sense at all has Head Start done its job?

The NHSA statement continues:

However, it is particularly troubling that the benefits of kindergarten readiness seem to flatten out from kindergarten through third grade. Our work with students ends when children graduate from Head Start, but it is clear that for many, their circumstances continue to hinder their success; circumstances including, but not limited to, the quality of their primary and secondary education.

Note the deceptive terminology here. The benefits of kindergarten readiness do not “flatten out” -- they disappear. That’s not a trivial distinction.

Furthermore, blaming outside forces for Head Start’s failure is logically invalid. Since the impact study was a randomized experiment, both the treatment and control groups have similar circumstances that hinder their success. If, for example, all children could attend high-performing schools after leaving Head Start, then outcomes for the treatment and control groups would presumably both go up, making the usefulness of Head Start no less questionable.

The fact that the initial test score gains quickly faded out in the HHS study should not be surprising. Researchers have observed for decades that Head Start does not seem to improve academic outcomes.

Perhaps that frustrating lack of cognitive impact is to blame for Head Start’s amorphous mission over the years. President Johnson wrote shortly after its creation that children would be receiving “preschool training to prepare them for regular school,” recounts Checker Finn of the Fordham Institute. But as study after study began to show Head Start was failing in that goal, proponents pushed for a broader mission – one with a greater emphasis on health, motivation and nutrition.

The effort to transform Head Start’s mission from an academic focus to health and social outcomes led to the program being housed at what would become the HHS, not the Department of Education. But the HHS study found that Head Start fails to improve not just cognitive outcomes, but also practically every social and behavioral outcome it examined as well. In short, the program has not lived up to any of its goals, changeable as they have been.

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Jason Richwine, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst in empirical studies and Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.

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