The Case for Saving Head Start

  • Share
  • Read Later
Win McNamee / Getty Images

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (L) and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (R) read the Dr. Seuss book 'Green Eggs and Ham' to students enrolled in a Head Start program at Rolling Terrace Elementary School March 1, 2013 in Takoma Park, Maryland.

With sequestration cuts about to take place, Head Start faces a devastating loss in federal support. If this defunding becomes permanent, it would result in the needless destruction of an important component of early education for low-income families — and one of our most effective investments in improving the future lives of children.

In the zeal to promote President Obama’s new proposal for universal access to high-quality preschool, the Head Start program has been unfairly maligned. Both proponents and opponents of the president’s plan have been quick to criticize Head Start — calling it a “dud”and “lousy”. And now, as the post-sequestration budget wrangling begins, there’s a very real chance Head Start could be headed for the guillotine, even though the dismissive rhetoric about the program doesn’t fit the facts.

(MORE: The Catch-22 of Obama’s Preschool Plan)

Head Start has been extensively researched, with important studies that have been published in some of the most highly regarded peer-reviewed journals. The findings paint a picture of a successful program. Head Start participants show substantial improvements on test scores early in life — according to one recent study, these gains are only 20% smaller than those from other models. In adulthood, Head Start students are more likely to complete high school, attend college, and even have better health outcomes. They are less likely to have been charged with a crime or become a teenage parent.

One surprising pattern shows up in the Head Start results: the positive impacts on test scores fade to a fraction of their initial levels around the age of 11–14. However, the program still confers positive benefits beyond age 14. But if we stopped measuring impacts at 14 instead of following the participants all the way through to adulthood, we would mistakenly conclude that the program was ineffective. Moreover, research has shown that the test-score fadeout was most severe when Head Start students went on to attend low-quality schools, so there is little doubt that high quality preschool would be even more effective if coupled with subsequent high-quality learning environments, especially in the early grades.

This fade-out and re-emergence pattern of impacts also shows up in other studies of early childhood education programs such as the Perry Preschool experiment and my own work on the Tennessee kindergarten class-size experiment. Researchers are still working on understanding why these patterns occur.

(MORE: In Mississippi, Will Competition Cure Head Start — Or Kill It?)

One widely accepted theory is that early childhood education teaches children not only cognitive skills, but also a wider range of soft skills — such as persistence and the ability to get along with others — that are less easy to measure with standard tests. These skills are highly prized in the real world, and may be the reason that Head Start participants are better at holding down jobs.

Some critics have pointed to disappointing results of the recent randomized-controlled trial of Head Start, which found this same pattern: strong early impacts that faded away by third grade. But one thing we know from the prior literature is that the story does not end in third grade, and if the typical pattern holds, we will expect to see strong benefits in adulthood. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the same experiment has shown that Head Start induces parents to increase their involvement in their children’s leaning —more reading to kids, more visits to cultural events, and more time spent with nonresident fathers. These improvements in the home environment persist even after Head Start ends.

(MORE: TED Prize-Winning Idea: A School in the Cloud)

Economists from all across the political spectrum support policies to promote early skill development because they are a good investment. The government’s role in promoting programs like this is also crucial because benefits accrue not only to the individual in the form of better labor market outcomes, but also to society at large through a reduction in crime and the use of welfare programs. It is a textbook case of good policy intervention, and it would be a shame for Congress to cut this important policy because of its failure to come up with its own principled budget cuts.

MORE: Can Tough Competition Hinder Academic Performance?