Is Obama Clueless About Negative Head Start Study?

Two weeks after President Obama declared the Head Start federal program for preschoolers off-limits for Republican budget-cutters in the House, members of Congress along with those who have studied the 46-year-old Great Society legacy are beginning to ask the obvious question:  Why Head Start?  Has Obama read the impact study of his own Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Head Start and its less-than-stellar conclusion about the performance of the progam?

With more than $167 billion spent by taxpayers on Head Start since it was launched in 1965 (and Obama’s 2011 budget increasing it by $1 billion), he certainly should have.

Mandated by Congress in 1998 and finally released in January of 2010, the impact study by HHS’s Administration for Children and Families reached some conclusions that should give the Obama administration second thoughts about making Head Start a holy grail in the budget wars.

For example, the report concluded that access to Head Start did have “positive impacts on several aspects of children’s school readiness” during their time in the program—among them, “impacts on vocabulary (PPVT), letter-word identification, spelling . . . [and] letter-naming.”

“However,” the report concluded, “the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of the first grade for the sample as a whole.”  (“Head Start Impact Study, Final Report,” January 2010, Executive Sumary, p. iv.)

More specifically, the study assessed 19 kindergarten outcomes and 22 first-grade outcomes, with no measurable effects on nine measures of language and literacy, two measures of the Spanish language, and literacy, and three measures of math skills.  (“Head Start Impact Study: Final Report,” pp. 4-10-4-13, Exhibit. 4.2.)  In the cases of the 22 first-grade outcomes, none of them showed a measurable impact at the 5% level.  (“Head Start Impact Study: Final Report,” pp. 4-10-4-13, Exhibit 4.2.]

“By the end of the first grade,” noted the study, “only a single cognitive impact was found for each cohort [participant].  Head Start group children did significantly better on the PPVT (a vocabulary measure) for 4-year-olds and on the Woodcock-Johnson III test of Oral Comprehension for the 3-year-olds.”  (“Head Start Impact Study,” Executive Summary, p. iv.”)

Although the report did find several positive aspects to participation in the Head Start program, its conclusions was “the benefits of access to Head Start at age 4 are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole [emphasis added].”  (“Head Start Impact Study: Final Report,” p. xxxviii.)

In short, this is not exactly a resounding no-arguments case for continuing funding at current levels—much less increasing it.

Shortly after the report was released, at a Heritage Foundation panel dubbed “Is Head Start Helping Children Succeed and Does Anyone Care?” Nicholas Zill, who had been a lead analyst on the impact study, noted that the HHS report was largely ignored by the press.

“I think the main reason why [the study is] being ignored is the results were negative,” said Zill.  “In fact, I think if the results were positive, even if they had been delayed years and years, they would have been on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other media outlets.”

Russ Whitehurst, director of education policy for the Brookings Institute, weighed in on the fact that the data for the impact study had begun being collected in ’02 and continued through 2006.  It was released nearly four years later.

“Delayed data are useless data,” Whitehurst said.  “One reason we’ve gotten so little attention to the data is that the actions that should have been predicated on the results of the study have already been taken.”

The report’s executive summary concludes that “this study leaves many important questions about [Head Start] unanswered.”  At this writing, however, there are no reported plans to have a further and more up-to-date review of Head Start.