The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just released its latest batch of Head Start data, revealing, once again, that its students are receiving far less than a “head start.”
The study, which was finally released the weekend before Christmas after more than a year’s delay, examines the third-grade outcomes of two groups of Head Start students: those who began the program at age three and another who began at age four.
In 2010, HHS released a similar report looking at first-grade outcomes. Both studies show similar results: Not only does Head Start have no impact on children’s academic outcomes, but it also has little to no impact on other measures of child well-being and, in some cases, even has some negative impacts.
In a newly released paper, Heritage’s Lindsey Burke and David Muhlhausen discuss the findings, summarized as follows:
- Cognitive development. Of 11 measures of cognitive ability—including reading, language, and math ability—access to Head Start made no difference for either three- or four-year-old students on any outcomes.
- Social-emotional development. Of 19 measures of social-emotional development—such as aggression, hyperactive behavior, and conduct problems—for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start was connected to a slight benefit in “social skills and positive approaches to learning,” as reported by parents, but it had no impact on any of the other outcomes. For four-year-olds, Head Start was associated with a small decrease in aggressive behavior but also appeared to be significantly linked to harmful impacts, including higher teacher reports of “an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms,” as well as poorer peer relations.
- Child health outcomes. Of five measures of health outcomes, Head Start made no difference for either group, including no impact on “receipt of dental care, health insurance coverage, and overall child health status being excellent or good.”
- Parenting outcomes. Of the 10 measures of parental outcomes, Head Start appeared to have only one benefit for each group. Parents of the three-year-old cohort reported higher levels of authoritative parenting, and parents of the four-year-old cohort reported spending more time with their children.
After five decades, Head Start continues to default on its aim to boost school readiness. In addition to the program’s overall ineffectiveness, there are government reports of fraud in the program. Yet Head Start continues to receive billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Since Head Start began, more than $180 billion taxpayer dollars have been spent to fund it—and Congress is currently contemplating allocating millions of extra dollars to the program through the supplemental aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims.
“In the interest of children and taxpayers, it’s time for this nearly half-century experiment to come to an end,” write Burke and Muhlhausen. But if it must continue, they note, reform is necessary. “If the federal government continues to fund Head Start, policymakers should allow states to make their Head Start dollars portable, following children to a private preschool provider of choice.”