Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Head Start, Followed By A Fall Back To The Pack

It's funny how two people can look at the same data and take away two completely different lessons. When I read about the Department of Health and Human Services report on the Head Start program, I take away that over a hundred billion dollars has been spent to give a few children a lead in the learning process that disappears before the end of first grade. I take away that the benefit falls far short of the cost. I take away that the money can be better spent in other ways.

The New America Foundation, a "nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States" takes away we need to spend more money:

"In short, the Impact Study’s results strike us as more evidence that to do right by today’s children, we have to not only ensure that 4-year-olds receive a high-quality pre-K experience, but that children experience high-quality instruction all the way up through the primary grades. We need a seamless, integrated system from pre-K through third grade."
Their position seems to be that Head Start needs to be expanded from preschool through third grade. How much would that cost?

If $100 billion didn't provide any lasting benefit, how much would? Pretend for a minute that this came to pass tomorrow. When the 2020 version of this report comes out and shows that the benefits gained from the program disappear by the end of the fourth grade at a cost of, say, $500 billion, what will the response be then? I'm guessing it wouldn't be, "the program is a failure, let's get rid of it." No, it would be, "this dismal report is proof that we need to extend the program through junior high school."

I'm all for improving education. But when you throw $100 billion at something with no discernable gain, it's time to look for another way.

(Link to New America Foundation's response via Cato@Liberty)


  1. I truly don't know a lot about this but it seems to me that the Head Start program is aimed at "disadvantaged" children as a substitute for what is actually supposed to take place in the home. And it's apparent that the earlier in life you point someone in the right direction the less likely they are to become a burden on society at a later point. But there has to be a consistency as kids develop that Head Start can't provide. Therefore, as you stated, this appears to be a perfect opportunity to explore different and perhaps better ways to approach this problem...especially with a $100 Billion. But this is a tough problem to correct because it's more of a social issue than an educational one.

  2. Yes, it's a program designed to get disadvantaged or "at risk"* kids into a learning environment at an early age so that they aren't hopelessly behind in their development once real school starts.

    But it seems to me that if the program were capable of showing real returns, it would have done so by now, and that those benefits wouldn't disappear so quickly, unless...

    (duh dun DA!) ...there's a bigger factor here, and that is parental involvement. Head Start might help kids in the short term but those kids largely come from an environment where the parents don't enocurage learning, don't care if they go to school, don't reward kids when they do well in school and generally just don't give a crap.

    I strongly believe that (I saw it growing up in some of the kids I went to school with). Of course, if these kids' parents were involved in the first place, Head Start probably wouldn't be necessary. That would be blaming the parents though, which is verbotten when there's a lack of funding to be blamed.

    [*] I read an article where a state legislature (California, I think) is voting to replace the term "at risk" in all legislation with "at hope". I kid you not.