The Head Start program works! (For about a year.)

Though it was easy to miss in the media non-coverage, last week the U.S. Department of Health & Human released its congressionally-mandated impact study on the Head Start program for the years 2002 – 2003. The results were devastating for supporters of the 45-year old, $100 billion dollar program.

In the fall of 2002, researchers started to study two randomly selected groups of poor children: those who got into Head Start programs and those who didn’t. According to data collected a year later, the children in Head Start seemed to be better prepared for school on several, though not all, indicators of school readiness. Debates raged about how significant these results were, but the data at least showed several areas in which they were better prepared than their counterparts. They were better, for example, at identifying letters and had picked up more writing skills.

Now consider today’s news from the Department of Health and Human Services: By the end of 1st grade, children’s participation in the program no longer shows up as having much of an impact on various cognitive and social-emotional measures, at least on the sample as a whole.

“The study showed that at the end of one program year, access to Head Start positively influenced children’s school readiness,” HHS reported in a press release. “When measured again at the end of kindergarten and first grade, however, the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied.”

The goal of Head Start — to improve the educational performance of low-income children through supplemental lessons, health and nutrition services, etc. — is noble enough. But a good intention doesn’t guarantee policy success. If we’re serious about helping poor kids get the best education possible, we should support those programs that demonstrate success. Andrew Coulson at Cato has one good suggestion…  



Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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