Head Start and the party of science
posted at 12:22 pm on January 15, 2010 by Karl
Education Week reports on a large-scale randomized control study of nearly 5,000 children released by the US Department of HHS this week, showing that the benefits of Head Start largely disappear by the end of 1st grade. Ed Week fails to report that had HHS not used a less-rigorous method of evaluating Head Start, the report would have shown no impact on the language and literacy outcomes for the four-year-old cohort. Nevertheless, Ed Week should get some credit for reporting the story, as the establishment media has avoided it like the plague.
It would be easy to suggest lefty bias as the reason for the media blackout, but maybe the establishment media has decided that the tiny, temporary effect of Head Start simply is not news anymore. In 1985, the first HHS meta-analysis of Head Start research concluded that no long-term gains had been shown. Last year, the New York Times published an op-ed by AEI’s Douglas J. Besharov (a Head Start backer) and Douglas M. Call, noting that:
In 1998, Congress required the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct the first rigorous national evaluation of the program. The Clinton administration took this mandate seriously and initiated a 383-site randomized experiment involving about 4,600 children. Confirming previous research, the study found that the current program had little meaningful impact.
For example, even after spending six months in Head Start, 4-year-olds on average could identify only two more letters than children from similar backgrounds not in the program; 3-year-olds could identify one and a half more letters. More important, no gains at all were detected in more vital measures like early math learning, oral comprehension (very indicative of later reading comprehension), motivation to learn or “social competencies” like the ability to interact with peers and teachers. (Emphasis added.)
Similarly, in 2005, NPR reported on the first phase of the current HHS study, which also showed Head Start produces only minimal, short-term benefits. Indeed, most of Head Start’s reputation hinges on studies of the Perry Preschool project and the Carolina Abecedarian project — neither of which bear much resemblance to Head Start programs.
Pres. Obama made a big deal of insisting that public policy be based on science, not ideology. But after decades of HHS studies showing that Head Start produces no meaningful gains for kids, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius put out a press release suggesting this latest study supports the program. Apparently. when it comes to Democrat-favored programs, the science is never settled.