Head Start Program Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be: Now What Do We Do?

Being the cute little kid that I am and all, you’d probably think I’d be all on board for raising more federal dollars to fund the long-running, early childhood school readiness program known as Head Start. If not as a blogger, at least as a stage prop … right?

Wrong. I mean, it sure sounds like a nice idea on paper. But when you look at the long-awaited comprehensive research on Head Start that finally was released last month, you realize the billions of dollars spent every year is not accomplishing a whole lot of results beyond making us feel good about ourselves.

What do I mean? Check out the report by the Heritage Foundation’s David Muhlhausen and Dan Lips. In the dozens of measurements that made up the areas measured — cognitive development, social development, child health and parenting outcomes — virtually none showed a positive impact from Head Start. Their conclusion?

In the 1990s, Congress mandated an evaluation of Head Start’s effectiveness. In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services finally released the results of the impact evaluation of first-grade students. Overall, the evaluation found that the program largely failed to improve the cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of children who participated in Head Start compared to the outcomes of similar children. According to the report, “the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole.” Head Start’s disappointing results cast doubt over the effectiveness of federal preschool interventions and highlight the need to review the effectiveness of the federal government’s current 69 preschool and child care programs.

So this means Congress will eliminate or cut Head Start funding? That they’ll get out of the business of running preschool services, or at least go back to the drawing board and start over? Right? Guess I’m still young enough to be so naive.

I look forward to hearing what the non-profit group Colorado Head Start has to say about these significant research results. It will be difficult to address, as Colorado raked in nearly $69 million in 2007-08 to serve 9,820 poor Head Start students.

But if there’s no lasting impact to help these poor kids, what are we really doing? Can’t we be doing better to help them?