Head Start: To Cut or Not to Cut?

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"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.

15 Comments

A major problem is that current evaluation efforts for schooling are aimed at academic skills exclusively. Using that kind of criteria for assessing Head Start is a mistake.

Children's needs in Headstart are for social and emotional skills that will pay off down the road. For example, children need to know how to act in a group, how to deal with their desires and impulses in a group setting, and improve their ability to delay gratification, among many such skills. These things are important pre-academic learning. They are much more important and more appropriate than efforts to push reading and math downward into early childhood.

The nature of these pre-academic skills are not well known to many members of Congress. It's worth noting that the kind of child who has the most difficulty reading is typically a child whose behavior is not well-adjusted to formal classroom settings, and this has has kept him or her from learning. Headstart teaches and practices these important foundations for school success.

Yes, Headstart is of uneven quality and needs work and improvement. More testing is not the answer, however, as testing rarely taps important social-emotional skills. More stringent academic emphasis is not the answer, as pushing the grade school curriculum down into preschool years undermines important early childhood development. What we need is more focused efforts at improvement, informed by how young children actually develop.

Thank you for this excellent comment.

Thanks for actually considering the impact study in full and in context. Many posts I see cherry-pick details that support their agenda, which is typically to cut or eliminate Head Start.

You mention, "....if Head Start is cut it is unclear whether children would attend other preschool programs...." It is clear what would happen in my state, which is one of ten with no state pre-k and almost no early learning infrastructure. Children, especially children from low income families, would do without because there isn't anything else. That's my problem with those who want to cut Head Start: they have no back-up plan and offer no solution to the real problems that Head Start addresses with varying degrees of success.

I am a Head Start teacher in Texas and as a teacher I do demand a lot from my children.By the time my children leave my classroom most of them do know at least 10 alphabet letters or more by sight, and we work on language as well as literacy, early math, and nature and science, as well as develop social skills and work on the child's physical development. I have worked at head start for eighteen years and the children of today have more social and emotional needs than in the past, and have more pressures to deal with. If we, as teachers at Head Start, can help children evolve as a whole, they will become productive members of society and give back to society, I know I have made a difference.

I agree that the Head Start program is not solely or should not be solely based on education but on the emotional impact it has on the children it services. These children learn to socialize, interact, express their feelings, share and receive emotional support from the teachers and the assistents that share their lives for the five or so hours a day they are in Head Start. They learn rules, how to listen to instructions and participate in group activities. These are all social skills that need to be learned and realized before they go to kindergarten. These skills are advantageous to both the child, the parents who learn to interact with their children and the children's future teachers who will be part of their lives in the coming years.

Having worked in both Preschool's commercially and Head Start Programs - I see wide gaps of responsibility on the part of the staff in Head Start. It is more of a "playground" with everything being "free choice". While there are "some" experiences of group activities - it is far more an "orientation" into accepting another culture than learning. Buses are picking up kids who live within a few blocks of the schools and could easily walk, as these parents are "not employed". There is an "over abundance" of supplies that are "wasted" because the staff has no concern about the costs. High Scope program is meant to instill in the students - "purposes" for what they do; but that is NOT happening. Most girls chose the same center - "housekeeping" every day and boys have little coaching in other centers. Salaries of Head Start staff are "far too high" based on what they do. They "give" food to families that have made friends with staff and staff talk regularly about personal information of these families and make judgements based on "gossip". Many of the staff are "sitting" on the playgrounds and "chatting" with each other. I am a degreed teacher and took offense to this program; because there is "little value" in the time spent there. Commercial preschools have programs that include all the major areas of learning and are educationally based. Most 4 year olds there have learned a great deal. So; the Head Start, while being a neighborhood program for the most part only helps continue bias in the multi-culture society we have. Head Starts organization has supervisors that aren't present often enough to catch these inadequacies. For instance: I witnessed a headstart teacher using a record to teach children to count backwards from twenty when they didn't even know how to recognize a number from a letter. There is no acceptance of "Anglos" and they are called "whitey's" behind their backs rather than team teaching as it should be done.

I too have worked both privately and for Head Start. The situation you describe in your post is definitely not the case in our Head Start center's (20 or so). We have very little "extra" money so supplies are coveted. We are not allowed to give away food for threat of being discharged. Are day is very structured with only one hour of free choice time as mandated by the government. The busing is in high demand and many families are forced to walk long distances. I make very little money for what I do which often includes having children hurt me physically. I love my job and take my responsibility very seriously. It is unfortunate that this was not your Head Start experience.

Hi everyone ....my comment is that wonderful organizations usually get congresional axing,and are really frustrating the smart people who work to make Head Start the incredible savior of young children and their families! ....and saviors of kids with diabilites! .....and saviors of kids who have no family! and saviors or kids with single parents...... and kids with rags for clothes and no allowances or even recreational advantages ! Saviors of kids who don't have enough to eat and kids who live in boxcars, parks, alleys and kids with parents trying to survive! Do you personally want to see children disappear forever into doorways and shelters? Susan (ME) says "I bet all of you could tell your senators and congressmen and women that undereducated children are not a good idea this year or any year! compliment your congress people who are pro-Head Start......Steve LaTourette in OHIO he's one of the good guys! Tell him you appreciate his postive votes for Head Start and for public radio and other vital survival legislation!

The Head Start agencies run the gamut. Many are not much more that places where politicians can go to garner votes. Others are doing quality work.
There needs to be comprehensive reform in the Head Start programs and get rid of the ones that are doing bidding for politicians.
The Head Start agencies in South Texas are thugs.

Its important to nurture children when they are young. Instlling a sense of responsility and decipline is essential to prepare to grow up.

Head Start doesn't help to raise I.Q. Does it have other effects, beneficial or otherwise? What is known?

My son attends head start, he was assessed for delays in speech and emotional/social behavior. In six months time he has become more independent and less explosive over instances when he doesn't get exactly what he wants. It has helped him deal with his emotions which has made a positive impact at home with his little brother as well. Since his little brother insists on doing exactly what big brother is doing. Also he is far more patient with his little brother, co operates and plays with out the constant explosions. They still argue as siblings will but it has become far more civil then before and I often find them playing together with ease.

Geez... reading the comments makes me wonder (and I voted Dem last 2 election cycles)...

Do you folks really realize how you give the crazy conservatives easy ammo when you persist with supporting social programs that are PROVEN failures?

Particularly when a little judicious review and research would likely uncover deserving programs that actually work?

It sure seems like the Ed fans drink WAY too much of their own Kool-Aid (smack me when it seems that I'm going astray here... FACTS follow)

After 45 years and 166 BILLION dollars (current spending is about 9 BILLION per year for 900,000 kids, or $10,000 per kid PER YEAR, for those educators of you that are math challenged), the government's own Department of Health and Human Services long term study of 5000 randomly selected kids PROVES that HEAD START does NOTHING. No negligible, statistically significant result - over kids that don't go to Head Start.

Sure the kids have fun, and anecdotal reports from parents about how much THEIR kid is benefiting does not the truth go away.

In fact, not a single one of the 114 HHS study-administered tests - of academics, socio-emotional development, health care/health status and parenting practice -- showed a reliable, statistically significant effect from participating in Head Start. In addition, measured benefits disappeared once more rigorous statistical methods were applied. In other words, there was virtually no benefit to children of having attended Head Start.

So, even for you education fans... don't you see how better programs that work might GREATLY benefit from killing this $9 BILLION taxpayer funded pork epic fail, and redirecting some resources to things that actually DO something tangible? We could make a HUGE difference in a lot of other ways, no? Tutoring, mentoring programs? Supplies?

Not to mention killing one of your opposition's argument that you are all collectively blinded by being mindlessly attached to the gov't teat.

Our kids only a small window of a few years of education. They deserve better. It shouldn't take a decade to fix this. The US Gov't DHHS study results came out 3 years ago. It was a well intentioned program that DOESN'T WORK. Don't the kids in the system deserve that the efforts be (at LEAST) redirected toward things that will directly help them while they are in the education system?

Regards all. Godspeed to those of you that mold the young minds. Ensure that critical thought is part of your teachings.

Bob W.
Bristol RI

Bob W.
DId you actually read the impact study or did you pull info out of context to justify your political rants..
The study shows that by the 3rd grade, the Head Start students looked no differnt than other students who attended private preschools or daycare..
The major take-aways here:
1. What happened in the school systems over the FOUR subsequent years of schooling that did not maintain the threshold of learning.
2. It didn't say they became retarded upon leaving Head STart, it said the looked like other students who were able to afford pre-k or daycare
3. We took those families who were in greatest need (ie. homeless children, foster children, children with disabilities, children of teen parents, children of grade school/ high school dropouts, children living in extreme poverty) and gave them stability, safety, food and education for a brief time in their young lives.. Not to mention the social service aspect of the program (which is not addresed in the impact study but is HALF of what the program is)
4. Since the study was conducted in 2002-03, Head Start has already implemented an extensive set of program quality improvements, many of them resulting from the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start Act--aka- School Readiness Act, which puts more stringent regulations around programs meeting their GOAL- ensure students are KINDERGARTEN READY.. Hopefully by the 3rd grade, the students are learning more than 123's, ABC's and print.
Sure there are underperformaing programs out there, but that is why out of all of the discrecionary funded programs, HS programs are required to undergo extreme federal monitoring and provide outcome data on indivdfual programs annually (UNLIKE ANY OTHER Discrecuionary fundedprogram). Those program and their grantees go bye-bye..
If other federally funded agencies underwent the rigorous microscope inspections like Head STart, maybe the program would be seem for the good that it does rather than always having it on the chopping block

please help me with my thesis

"The chlidren who attend Head start are better edcation then the children who do not attend Head start"

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