Last week, the Obama Administration released the long awaited results from an evaluation of Head Start, the federal government’s preschool program for children in poverty. Head Start provides low-income families with comprehensive education, health, nutrition and social services. While the first installment of the study, released in 2005, showed that Head Start children were better prepared for school, today’s shows that by the end of Kindergarten and 1st grade, the advantages of this $7 billion per year program fade.
The US Department of HHS conducted this study of nearly 5,000 three and four year olds. Results show that the students randomly assigned to the Head Start group had “few sustained benefits” compared to the control group. Many conservative blogs are harping on these results and asking why this information is just coming out now. Others are questioning Obama’s recent choice to increase funding for the program. Lindsey Burke, research assistant for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank, calls the Head Start program a “sinkhole for taxpayer dollars.”
Rather than focusing on what the taxpayers deserve, we should be thinking about what disadvantaged children deserve. It is indisputable that early childhood education is an investment that can yield huge results later in life. As President Obama noted last March, the dollars invested in early childhood education will reduce those we spend on welfare, health care and crime. A successful Pre-K program is the starting block for a solid education, something worth every penny the country can afford.
As I see it, the results to this study don’t provide us with the simple answer that the current Head Start program is a failure. Instead, it presents us with even bigger questions about why the positive effects of Head Start fade, and how we prevent that from happening.
The New America Foundation asks a much more productive question than “why are we spending all this money?” Instead, they ask “where does the fade out come from?” Is it from an ineffective Head Start program, or the quality of the kindergarten and first grade classrooms these kids entered? Could it suggest that children need quality support from pregnancy through Head Start, not for just a single year?
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was right when she said “for Head Start to achieve its full potential, we must improve its quality and promote high standards across all early childhood programs.” We must keep working to create a connected system for early education. It is unrealistic to think that one year of Head Start could fully prepare a child for school and for life.
Obama’s focus on early education makes me hopeful that the Head Start program will become more effective. We need to strengthen the program and ensure that our children are supported from day one. Only then will we have a chance to truly help disadvantaged families and break the cycle of poverty.
What do you think is ahead for Head Start? Should we can the program and start all over or is there a chance to turn the study’s results around?