Head Start has been in the news lately, both because of the effects of sequestration on the program and because of discussion about its effectiveness in light of proposals to expand early education. W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, sheds light on the research in a recent column on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.
Barnett concludes that Head Start is neither as ineffective as its critics contend nor as effective as its staunchest defenders claim. “Which side is correct?” he asks. “Neither.”
Barnett discusses the recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services that critics say show the benefits of Head Start fade by third grade. Although the study, based on a large-scale randomized trial, is the best to date on Head Start, Barnett cautions that it “does not say what critics claim it says.”
One issue, he notes, is the random assignments. Some children assigned to Head Start did not attend, which complicates the “treatment” group. And some children who were not assigned to Head Start attended other preschool programs, complicating the “control” group. In addition, other studies find that children who start kindergarten behind their classmates may catch up due to extensive remedial efforts. Likewise, Barnett notes that some of the studies showing substantial gains are not methodologically strong.
“Weighing all of the evidence and not just that cited by partisans on one side or the other, the most accurate conclusion is that Head Start produces modest benefits, including some long-term gains for children. The much maligned public schools produce larger gains in achievement beginning in kindergarten which may well erase some of Head Start’s gains, but such efforts can be costly,” Barnett concludes.
“Head Start’s cost-savings and other benefits may well exceed its costs. Yet, that is not enough. Head Start could produce larger gains if the program was better focused and made other improvements. Reforms being implemented by the Obama administration are an important step in that direction. More are needed, including substantial deregulation at the federal level that would permit greater flexibility an innovation. Unshackled from unrealistic mission expansion and agency micromanagement, and refocused on education as job one, Head Start could actually produce the results that both its critics and defenders seek.”