"Cuts to Head Start Show Challenge of Fiscal Restraint," blasted The New York Times on March 10, 2011. "Head Start was chosen for large cuts in the House spending bill because members of the Appropriations Committee concluded that the program was getting too much money given what they felt was its effectiveness."
There is some truth in the Appropriations Committee's conclusion. A 2010 study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that at the end of the first year of school, children who attended Head Start did no better than similar children who did not attend Head Start.
But there is more to the story than this conclusion alone. As Republicans and Democrats debate cuts to the program, it is critical that the research is understood comprehensively, so that funds can be used to support the most effective practices in early childhood education.
--While the 2010 evaluation analyzed the overall impact of the Head Start program, it also analyzed the program's impact on seven subgroups, which showed a number of favorable impacts at first grade in the cognitive, social-emotional, and health domains for children most at risk of failing academically and those with limited proficiency in English.
-- There is great variance among the Head Start programs - some are much more successful than others. We know from evaluations of other interventions such as the High-Scope Perry Preschool Program and the Child-Parent Centers program that preschool education can make long-term improvements in individuals' life courses. High quality Head Start programs should be distinguished from lower performing programs.
--In the absence of permanent test score gains, Head Start has been shown to have lasting positive effects on children in other areas such as future college attendance and fewer criminal offenses in young adulthood, among others. It is important to remember that Head Start provides a critical entry point for services other than education including health care, oral health services, parenting skills, and behavior modification.
Research shows that early education is vital to children's long term success, particularly for those who are the most vulnerable. If Head Start programs disappear or services are substantially reduced without corollary program development, it is unclear whether children would attend other preschools or programs, and if so, what the quality of those services would be.
As the government considers its next steps regarding Head Start, let's reorient the tone of the conversation to one that focuses on improving early childhood education for American children. Instead of thinking only about cuts, let's also think about the ways we can redirect funding to support effective early childhood education in the United States.