Commentary

Don’t Cry for Me, Head Start

By Darcy Ann Olsen and Eric Olsen
April 15, 1999

It’s been 33 years since the Head Start program was founded in hopes that it would end what President Johnson described as the “pattern of poverty.” Perhaps, its founders reasoned, federally subsidized early intervention could help all children enter school on an equal footing and thereby give disadvantaged children opportunities formerly reserved to the middle and upper classes. Unfortunately, the experiment has fallen short of fulfilling that hope.

Not surprisingly, given the euphoria surrounding Head Start from its inception, the program’s proponents are struggling with the truth as they try to keep Head Start alive. For example, Inspector General June Gibbs of the Department of Health and Human Services recently wrote, “There is clear evidence of the positive impacts of Head Start services.” Like other defenders of Head Start, she is stuck at the first step in the grieving process, denial. What Gibbs neglects to mention is that the “positive impacts” are only temporary. While enrolled, students show improvement on measures of academic and social achievement. But all gains diminish and then disappear entirely within a few years of exiting the program.

HHS summarized Head Start’s short-lived impact this way: “In the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start.” More recently, the General Accounting Office reported that there is simply no evidence that Head Start provides lasting benefits. Essentially, children end up back where they started. Those findings are consistent with 40 years of research on early intervention that shows that short-term benefits are possible but lasting gains are elusive.

Applying Ockham’s razor, if students test the same with or without Head Start after a year or two, there is absolutely no reason to put them in Head Start in the first place.

The only early intervention program that appears to have had a lasting impact on children is the Abecedarian Project, launched in 1972. Most children entered that lavish experiment at five months of age. Year round, the children spent eight hours a day, five days a week in an educational daycare center. They also received free medical care, dietary supplements, social service support, and extra support in school from kindergarten through age eighth grade. What the Abecedarian children really had was home away from home.

Ron Haskins, former administrative director of the Abecedarian Project, points out that it was conducted under ideal circumstances with skilled researchers, capable staffs with lots of training and ample budgets. “It seems unwise to claim that the benefits produced by such exemplary programs would necessarily be produced by ordinary preschool programs conducted in communities across the United States,” he concludes. We agree. It is highly unlikely that regular preschool programs, or Head Start, could ever replicate those results. In 40 years, no other public or private program has.

President Clinton recently pledged to improve education for America’s children when he proposed a 13 percent increase in funding for Head Start (funding has tripled in the past 10 years), heeding cries of “We just need more money!” and “We just need more time!” Anger and bargaining are the second and third steps in the grieving process. Thirty-three years, $35 billion, and 15 million children have passed under the Head Start bridge since 1965, and that’s more than enough time and resources to create, if it were possible, a successful program.

Defenders of Head Start claim the program should be considered successful because it cannot be held responsible for “fade out,” or what happens after the children enter the public school system. Valid or not, the argument does not change the reality of the situation. The naked truth is that one to two years after entering public school, children from Head Start programs score no differently on tests of academic achievement, social behavior, emotional adjustment and other measurable outcomes than do their non-Head Start peers.

When the emotional appeals are cleared from the table, what is left is a costly but unsuccessful experiment. Given the importance of a good education to a child’s health and welfare, we sympathize with those who are attempting to hang on to Head Start. Yet we need to grieve and move on (the final step in the grieving process). Head Start is not working. Accept that, and let it go.

Darcy Olsen is entitlements policy analyst at the Cato Institute and author of the new study “Universal Preschool is no Golden Ticket.” Eric Olsen is a freelance writer with a Master of Arts in Education.