Head Start's Broken Promise

American Enterprise Institute
2005

Questions about the effectiveness of Head Start—the famed, early intervention, preschool program for disadvantaged kids—have held up reauthorization of the $9 billion a year program since 2003. Earlier this year, however, Republicans and Democrats agreed, with no compelling research to guide their decisions, to give Head Start the benefit of the doubt and set it on the road to renewal. Both House and Senate drafted bills that, if enacted, would greatly expand the program. Let's hope it's not too late to reverse course. A gold-standard (randomized experiment) study of the program released just weeks after Congress set reauthorization in process shows Head Start to be only modestly successful in preparing children for school. Bottom line: Head Start alumni fair only marginally better than similar children who do not participate. So glum were these findings, notes Douglas Besharov in this commentary, that even Head Start boosters could say little more than that it has "modest impact" on children's lives. Even more damning is the fact that Head Start parents are using their feet to vote against the program. Writes Besharov: "Many working parents use regular child care (even if they have to help pay for it) or instead rely on relatives to care for their children." How should Congress respond? Besharov urges lawmakers to "mandate a systematic research and demonstration effort aimed at making Head Start more effective." It may be "naïve to think Head Start can be operated on the basis of careful research rather than politics," he writes, "but each year almost a million children pass through the program without getting the head start on learning they were promised." You can read Besharov's excellent paper here.

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