Taking a harder look at Head Start

In his State of the Union Address President Obama called for a major expansion of preschool programs, though where he planned to find the money wasn’t quite as clear. It’s hard to quarrel with programs designed to give disadvantaged kids a boost, which is one reason why Head Start has proved virtually sacrosanct. Trouble is, the evidence suggests that a program costing about $8 billion a year, or $10,000 per child . . . doesn’t deliver on the promise implied in its name.

Brookings Institution education analyst Russ Whithurst – who holds a Ph.D. in child psychology and devoted most of his career to preschool education – has published a rather damning review of the evidence, “Can We Be Hard-headed about Preschool: A Look at Head Start.”

You have to wade through some fairly technical analysis to get there, so I’ll cut to his summary of research findings:

There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start.  Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school.  Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.


The author does NOT claim that preschool can’t make a difference; indeed, he cites research about more favorable results from programs other than Head Start.

Dr. Whitehurst suggests that the federal government simply isn’t well-equipped to run a preschool program, and that states could do a better job with the money:

There are several alternative models of service delivery.  The one I favor has two parts.  The first is granting a waiver to the Head Start Act to states that put forward an acceptable plan to the federal government for providing a coordinated system of early childhood education that has the goal of assuring school readiness for children for low-income backgrounds.  Such a plan would need to include provisions for evaluating the quality and effectiveness of early childhood education centers and making that information available to the general public and to the parents of prospective enrollees.  The second part of the plan, for states that receive the waiver, would be to let the federal dollars that currently go to local Head Start agencies follow the children of low-income families to the state-licensed early childhood education center that the parents choose for their child.  Let low-income parents shop.  Have the state provide good information to support parents in making choices and assure that all providers meet minimal quality standards.

So maybe we need to add preschool to the list of education initiatives that the federal government doesn’t do well.

What do you think?

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