Does Head Start, the federally funded early childhood education program, get an unfair rap?
To conservatives, it’s a classic example of big government gone awry, continuously expanding without regard for evidence of failure. The Heritage Foundation says flatly: “Head Start Doesn’t Work.”
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has vowed to double investment in the program, saying it gives children “a strong foundation to learn.”
So who’s right?
At first glance, Head Start skeptics seem to have a point: Federal research studies using high-quality, randomized research techniques found small benefits that disappeared by the time a student finished kindergarten or first grade.
But a new research brief by Claire Montialoux of Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment summarizes a number of other studies showing that Head Start may actually be cost-effective and that the federal research understates the benefits of the program.
One problem with using the federal findings to declare Head Start a failure is methodological. Federal researchers compared three groups of children: those who attend Head Start, those who attend a different form of center-based care and those who are cared for at home. (The study lumped together the last two groups, however, which it acknowledges.)
Imagine that Head Start had positive benefits compared with home care and was just as good as private or state-run programs. If that were so, the federal research would significantly underestimate the benefits of preschool.
Indeed, follow-up research shows that Head Start produced fairly large positive effects on test scores for children who would have otherwise been cared for at home. The researchers find that the effects of the initiative appear to gradually fade out over time, but some effects persist at least through first grade. (There were no effects of Head Start compared with students who attended other forms of center-based care.)
There is also evidence that Head Start especially benefits students with the lowest baseline skills and has a positive effect on parental involvement.
The key question, though, is whether Head Start has lasting impact into adulthood. Famously, in the research world, the Perry and Abecedarian preschool programs in the 1960s and ’70s were shown to have a number of long-run effects, including increased earnings and IQs and lower arrest rates. Critics, however, question the applicability of research about these old, small-scale, intensive programs to the question of whether to expand existing programs like Head Start.
Research suggests that Head Start can in fact produce lasting benefits for students who otherwise would not attend preschool of any kind. A study by David Deming of Harvard compared children who received Head Start with their siblings who didn’t. Beneficiaries of the program had better adult outcomes across a variety measures: high school graduation, college attendance, health, crime and teen parenthood. The gains were about 80 percent the size of those shown in Perry preschool.
Crucially, these positive long-term effects came about even though the test score benefits of the program faded, just as was observed in the federal study. “A projection of future benefits for these children based solely on test score gains would greatly understate the impact of the program,” Deming wrote. In other words, studies showing fade-out of Head Start gains are not strong evidence that the program is ineffective. This is in line with research showing that short-run test score gains can dissipate over time but may “reappear” in the form of long-run benefits in adulthood.
Other studies using this sibling-comparison approach also find long-term positive effects of Head Start.
But Katharine Stevens, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, isn’t convinced that this method can really isolate the impact of Head Start, pointing out that siblings are often very different. For one thing, a parent may send one child to Head Start but not the other for reasons that research can’t fully control for.
Stevens, who has written about the methodological limitations of existing studies of pre-K, is skeptical of significantly expanding government-funded preschool. “There’s currently a $9 billion federal program with very uneven performance,” she said of Head Start, arguing that instead of spending large sums of money growing it, policymakers ought to experiment with and study a variety of “small pilot projects” to determine the best way to spend scarce resources.
No one argues against the need for more study, but there exists carefully done research suggesting that expanding Head Start is likely a cost-effective policy lever. The research estimates almost a two-to-one return on investment for each dollar spent on Head Start, considering its impact on children’s income as adults. Although growing the program would (of course) cost money, it would also save some public dollars since it would likely replace state-financed preschool.
The paper also suggests that the students who have the most to gain from Head Start — disadvantaged children who start out the furthest behind — are the ones who are least likely to enroll under the current system. This means that past studies might actually understate the benefits of providing more funds to Head Start.
On the other hand, there are concerns that a swift expansion of the program would make it challenging to recruit new preschool teachers — especially since their pay is already quite low.
New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, recently expanded its preschool program, with some initial evidence of success.
Doubling down on Head Start, as Hillary Clinton proposes, should certainly be paired with a focus on quality. Research shows that Head Start centers vary significantly in their effectiveness and that those offering full-day classes and home visits are particularly good. There are ongoing efforts to improve the program, though research will have to examine whether such changes work as intended.
In sum, there are legitimate questions about expanding Head Start — about the limits of existing research, the inevitable implementation challenges and the precise way to get the best bang for the early-childhood buck.
Still, the research we have offers good reason to believe that Clinton’s proposal is a wise use of money that would ultimately help kids.