HHS Study: Yep, Head Start doesn't work

Washington politicians interested in never cutting a dime from Washington’s spending can bring forth the name of Head Start quicker than the name of their own districts. It’s a heart-string puller. It has its roots deep in the Great Society, established in 1965 and expanded over the years to become one of the country’s longest-running programs to combat the effects of poverty. More than 20 million American children have gone through the program, which is designed to impart parenting skills to parents, and cognitive, emotional, and health improvements to children. Over the years, the program has cost $180 billion.

For the second time in two years, a Congressionally mandated study of the Health and Human Services program has shown it does not work. Its published date is October 2012, but it wasn’t released until after Obama’s election, presumably so Democratic campaigns could safely accuse Republicans of not caring about children and ignore the actual results of the programs they favor.

The timing of the release raises questions about whether HHS was trying to bury the findings in the report, which shows, among other outcomes, that by third grade, the $8 billion Head Start program had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of participants. On a few measures, access to Head Start had harmful effects on children.

The two studies followed two cohorts—one with access to Head Start and one without, for a total of 5,000 children—through first grade (2010 study) and into third grade (2012 study) to determine whether the federal program had lasting effects on cognitive abilities, emotional well-being, behavior, or parenting skills.

In 2010, HHS released the findings of the Head Start Impact Study, which tracked the progress of three- and four-year-olds entering Head Start through kindergarten and first grade. Overall, Head Start had little to no positive effects for children who were granted access.

For the four-year-old group, compared to similarly situated children not allowed access to Head Start, access to the program failed to raise the cognitive abilities of participants on 41 measures. Specifically, the language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance of the participating children failed to improve.

Alarmingly, access to Head Start for the three-year-old group actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math ability of these children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating children were more prepared in math skills than those children who participated in Head Start.

Head Start also had little to no effect on the other socio-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes of children participating in the program. For the four-year-old group, access to Head Start failed to have an effect for 69 out of 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes.

And, they were studied again in third grade:

Impacts on Cognitive Development. For cognitive development, the third-grade study assessed 11 outcomes for the original three- and four-year-old cohorts. Access to Head Start for each group had no statistically measurable effects on all measures of cognitive ability, including numerous measures of reading, language, and math ability.

Impacts on Social-Emotional Development. For social-emotional development, the third-grade study assessed 19 outcomes for each cohort. For measures of parent-reported social-emotional outcomes, access to Head Start for the three-year-old cohort failed to affect four of the five measures. For this cohort, Head Start failed to affect four measures of parental-reported problem behaviors. However, access to Head Start yielded a slight beneficial impact on children in the areas of social skills and positive approaches to learning.


For third grade, access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effect on the 10 teacher-reported measures of social-emotional development for the three-year-old cohort. However, for the four-year-old cohort, out of 10 measures, access to Head Start is associated with one harmful impact. Teachers reported “strong evidence of an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms.” Access to Head Start for this cohort had no beneficial or harmful impacts on the remaining nine teacher-reported measures.

The theme of this evaluation is “no statistically measurable effect,” and what tiny positive effects there are among subgroups in behavioral and parental improvements are outweighed by statistically measurable harmful impacts in others. This is not a wise way to spend billions of dollars.

Because this program is for low-income children and families, it’s easy to demagogue. All of its critics just hate low-income children, the speeches go, making it rather hard to criticize the program. But the reality is, when you’re taking billions out of the federal budget and out of American citizens’ budgets to prop up a program that has been shown repeatedly not to work for the very people who need it to work, you are doing a disservice to those children. It is not enough to pass legislation that funds a giant federal program if that program does nothing to help the people you claim to be helping. It is not compassionate to perpetuate that program when scientifically rigorous studies done during a Democratic administration have shown it does not help, and sometimes hurts. There are a thousand private entities doing work on education, social-emotional development, and parenting skills in low-income communities that would make better use of a 1/100th of Head Start’s budget than Head Start is. Head Start’s allotment in Obama’s 2013 budget is $8 billion— more than Twitter’s entire net worth and four times the worth of Pinterest, for some budgetary perspective. Head Start was upset there wasn’t more “investment.”

Head Start’s mission statement:

“Head Start promotes school preparation by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services.”

No, despite lots of money and well-intentioned employees, it doesn’t. Now, would we like to admit that and try something that does or just continue to fail these children in favor of some morally righteous back-patting and $8 billion in false “compassion?”