HHS Study Says $150 Billion Head Start Program for Low-Income Pre-Schoolers is Largely a Failure

January 18, 2010 - 6:16 PM
A long-awaited report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finds whatver gains pre-schoolers make in education and health through Head Start are erased by the ends of both kindergarten and first grade.

This Aug. 17, 2009 photo shows children playing at Redlands Christian Migrant Association La Guadalupana Child Development Center, which is a federally funded Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program in Ocala, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

(CNSNews.com) – Head Start, the federal government’s largest preschool program for low-income children, was found to yield no lasting results, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the beginning of this year.

The study found that children served by Head Start made gains in education and health during preschool when compared to other low-income children who did not participate in Head Start. But by the ends of both kindergarten and first grade, those benefits had “largely” dissipated. 
 
The 27-page report, titled “Head Start Impact Study Final Report,” states bleak findings.
 
“In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole.”
 
The report adds: “For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through first grade, a potentially important finding for children’s longer term development.”
 
Researchers concluded the report by claiming that “several subgroups of children in this study experience benefits of Head Start into first grade.” But they suggest that more long-terms research is needed to assess children through the third grade to see if those results last.
 
The report reads: “The third-grade report will examine the extent to which impacts of Head Start on initial school readiness are altered or maintained as children enter pre-adolescence.  Further, that report will provide a greater focus on how children’s later experiences in the school and community affect their outcomes at first and third grades.”

Dan Lips, education policy analyst at Heritage Foundation, said it is “unclear” at this point why Head Start bequeaths no lasting effects for children.

“I think the research evidence of other studies (indicates) that preschool benefits generally fade away as children get older,” Lips told CNSNews.com. “I also think that it is very likely that Head Start generally isn’t a quality program.” 

He added: “The program spends about $7,000 per student. I think those funds could be put to much better use.”

At the least, Head Start and other preschool programs need to be reformed, Lips said. 

“For example, the Head Start program could be changed to let parents use their share of Head Start funds to (choose a) preschool for their kids,” Lips added.

Lips said the HHS study is long past-due -- though taxpayers have spent approximately $150 billion on the government-run program since the ‘60s, until now “very little” was known about whether Head Start was actually helping children.”

“That’s why Congress mandated the evaluation back in the 1990s,” Lips said. “It is a tragedy that so much has been spent without really helping at-risk kids.”

Lips said he is not aware of any studies which compare pre-school children participating in Head Start with children spending those same years with a stay-at-home parent.

“I think that a comparison like that might be tough to do,” Lips said. “Studies have shown that time with parents at home is important for children. This is one reason why proposals for universal preschool could have unintended consequences,” he said.

Lips said there was an intentional delay on the part of HHS in reporting the grim findings of the effectiveness of Head Start.

“The first grade evaluation was completed in 2006,” Lips began. “It shouldn’t have taken four years to analyze the results.”

Lips continued, “I was told by former HHS officials that the report was done in the fall of 2008. But they held onto it for more than year.”

Lips concluded that he does not find it a “coincidence” that the study’s findings were “so bad.”

When asked when HHS might release results from Head Start participants’ third grade evaluations, he indicated that findings should be forthcoming.

“The third grade evaluations data collection was finished in 2008. That report should come out soon if they don’t delay it,” Lips said.

Head Start -- initiated in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of the War on Poverty-- is a community-based, federally-funded program which provides education, parenting guidance, health care, and nutrition services to help at-risk children catch up to their more advantaged peers upon starting elementary school.

In total, the program has received more than $100 billion from the federal government.  The program receives approximately $7 billion annually and pays at least $7,300 yearly on each of the 900,000 disadvantaged children served.
 
HHS undertook this study in response to a 1998 congressional mandate that they verify on a national level the impact of Head Start on low-income children.
 
Last March, President Obama told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: “For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime.”
 
Obama added: “That's why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that I signed into law invests $5 billion in growing Early Head Start and Head Start, expanding access to quality child care for 150,000 more children from working families, and doing more for children with special needs. And that's why we are going to offer 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses to help make sure their children are healthy and prepare them for school and for life,” Obama said.