Head Start A 50 Year Flop? Say It Ain’t So, Joe
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  • Anthony

    “A paradigm is falling apart” does not preclude essential value of Early Childhood intervention (research tested). One of our biggest challenges educationally is the way the poorly educated has become stratified in our country. Now, Head Start, perhaps flawed model and no silver bullet, certainly identifies (wittingly or unwittingly) area in which most bang for buck potentially addresses early educational ills of many of our entering public school students (a really bigger story) – Blue Model contention aside.

  • Daniel Kennelly

    Anthony, that’s true, as far as it goes. There are programs like these (nursefamilypartnership.org) that have withstood decades of randomized, controlled trials and have been found cost-effective (in that the program actually saves states money, or even increases tax revenues, years down the line). The paradigm shift isn’t that we shouldn’t spend money on Early Childhood intervention; it’s that we should, you know, actually test them before we lavish them with public spending for half a century.

  • Kenny

    “True enough, as far as it goes, but it would just be cheaper to send them all checks.”

    No, Mr. Mead, that would not work.

    The liberal mindset requires not only for society to give money to those in these make-work jobs but also to promote the illusion that those people are actually doing something worth while. This is welfare for their self-esteem.

  • vanderleun

    You don’t need a question mark in the headline. Nor need you feign surprise. This program does exactly, but exactly, what it is supposed to do… from the inception. Jobs for the otherwise hardcore unemployable…. jobs that get into the system and get handed down within the democrat demographic forever.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The bigger story, though, is that the fundamental assumptions behind decades of government policy in education are coming unglued. The tools we’ve been using to address some of our most serious social problems don’t work.

    The assumptions that need to be at questioned are that it can be determined what constitutes a deleterious environment for rearing a child and that having determined that a child is in such an environment that the government has the right and responsibility to intervene in the rearing of the child short of determining that the parent is unfit and taking the child from the parent.

    These are tough issues as the coming conflict over childhood obesity will demonstrate. But the government has been eroding and usurping parental responsibility for child rearing for decades, without positive results.

    Other implicit assumptions are that children should be held harmless from mistakes their parents make and that parents should be held harmless from the mistakes they make.

    There’s a whole lot of transfer of responsibility going on here and it creates a lot of moral hazard. Time for government to try to do a whole lot less and make it clear that people are responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

    More localized, need specific and less legalistic mechanisms need to be developed for helping each other. Social agents other than the government can do a much better job of dealing with the needs of individuals. Head Start is just another example of how futile it is to try to off load this responsibility on a bureaucratic government.

  • Kris

    @1: “One of our biggest challenges educationally is the way the poorly educated has become stratified in our country.”

    Yes, she certainly has. 🙂

    @1,@2: See, for example, Megan McArdle.

    @3: Which is one reason why the not-even-facetious Milton Friedman proposal that the federal government just send every citizen a sizable check (and eliminate all of the inefficient transfer programs) has never been adopted.

  • Anthony

    @Daniel-2; I was speaking to importance of investing as a country in Early Childhood (concept itself). I was neither endorsing nor condemning 50 years Head Start (subject for dissertation pro/con). But evidence (cf. Bucharest Early Intervention Project) is pretty clear that investments in early childhood provide benefits to both child and society – certainly I agree with you that monies should not be wasted. Liberals/conservatives (I use both terms cautiously) sometimes fixate on nature/nurture correlations rather than ongoing research and investigations vis-a-vis Early Childhood Development. Overall Daniel, I am in accord with primacy of cost effectiveness when public dollars are at play as a general principle (thanks).

  • Jim.

    Paradigms can limp along for years, if there’s nothing to replace them.

    You’ve been thinking about this for some time now, Professor Mead… do you have any interim conclusions?

  • MarkE

    How about a post-mortem? Was the failure in the execution or the assumptions? Does early intervention have to be done by more skillful people in a better setting? Is early intervention a faulty starting place? Were there other experimental programs that did better? Were there any other trials at all? What are the important variables: family, culture, expectations, and/or genetics?

  • My view on this is admittedly biased, as I’m the parent of a wonderful 4-year-old girl who goes to an Early Head Start preschool.

    I can’t speak to the program as a whole, but Sophie’s mom and I have been consistently happy with the program and have found the teachers and staff professional, competent, caring, and hardworking. She’s made friends with kids in the neighborhood and she is getting a good preschool education.

    I understand that times are tough and Federal programs are often guilty of overreach and overspending. But I can’t allow the characterization of Head Start as a worthless program that does “essentially nothing” for kids to pass unchallenged.

  • Charles R. Williams

    This is not news. Studies have consistently shown Head Start to be ineffective. I imagine the problem is incentives. There is no incentive on the part of program management to achieve gains in cognitive development or other measurements in the children the program serves. This program – as you say – is all about jobs.

  • Independent George

    If I’m not mistaken, isn’t there a regulation in some states which mandates a degree in education in order to work with children in Head Start? This effectively redistributes money away from those poor communities, and right back towards the middle-class college graduates.

  • Hibernian Faithful

    The amount of money spent on this program that has never worked since its inception is approximately $140b or approximately 1% of the national debt – that is why we are in trouble.

  • Corlyss

    For years, Republicans have tried to get the facts out about Head Start. It has NEVER done a thing to improve the educability of it’s patrons, never mind its charges. It’s essentially a total waste of money for education purposes. However, it’s just super as a wealth transfer program in the form of day care services for the permanent underclass. Back when it started up in the mid-60s, I knew one of the people who was hired to be a Head Start “teacher.” She was a classically slow-witted child, a nice, loving, and nurturing 21 yr old, but one who could barely manage jr. high school and couldn’t live on her own. I wondered then what exactly were these people supposed to do? What exactly were the charges supposed to get out of the experience? That someone loved them for x number of hours a day before they returned to their deprived/depraved circumstances?

    There has never, never, been a single study produced by an organization that didn’t benefit directly from Head Start funds that found the program even moderately successful. Yet when Republicans demanded it’s excission, they were met with the usual “You’re mean!” responses to the facts.

    I can tell you this. It don’t matter a hill of beans that the government has now produced a study showing what a waste of resources it is. The program ain’t never going away because to elimintate it would be to punch that “racist” ticket one more time. The amount of money will be dismissed as de minimis in the overall scheme of the deficit and we’ll go on paying for day care services for the permanent underclass.

  • Corlyss

    @ Anthony

    “Early Childhood intervention (research tested).”

    Oh, please! You need a serious dose of Charles Murray/Richard Herrnstein on the matter of how much benefit is REALIZED from programs designed to upgrade the IQ of low-IQ children even by microscopic amounts. It’s a waste of money for education purposes. It’s fine as day care, if excessively priced.

  • Corlyss

    “The tools we’ve been using to address some of our most serious social problems don’t work.”

    The realization would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Charles Murray in an address to AEI back in the early 1990s observed a bitter truth about government socialization/education policy for the poor and the low-IQ (which are often synonymous , and I’m paraphrasing here: what we are willing to do does not work; what works we are unwilling to do.

    Because the Bluers have not trouble accepting expensive programs that don’t work but which make everyone feel like they are doing something to effect positive change, I submit nothing will change as a result of this government study. It will be buried again as soon as possible while AG Holder gears up to refight the civil rights battles against the South and other Republican held areas all over again.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Anti-trust the labor gangs, why should they get special extortion privileges and not the rest of us? The teachers unions are holding the nation back by not performing the very job they are being paid to do, educate the children for modern technological civilization.

  • Hubbub

    As a former educator, I can say without reservation that since the Johnson years, education programs sponsored by the government have proven without exception to be failures. Every few years, we get a ‘new’ system that is basically a ‘recycled’ formula with a different name that is going to correct the failures of the past.

    And I can say without reservation that the Bush ‘No Child Left Behind’ is a failure – or it will be so designated after a time. Better that we should call that beast by a more appropriate name – ‘No Child Gets Ahead.’

  • Toni

    It’s much easier to start a government program than to stop one.

  • KansasGirl

    The KC Mo school district just lost their accreditation AGAIN.

    When this happens the children from the failing district can transfer to healthy schools, which by mandate the failing district has to release the funds to the successful schools.

    But get this. The KC Mo district is fighting to keep the funds.

    We need to get government out of educating our children.

  • Anthony

    @15: Corlyss, not to belabor a muted point, Murray and Herrnstein’s claims were outdated even before they published them (significance of IQ and relationship between intelligence and race). However at its core “The Bell Curve” was an arguement for the nature side of the nurture/nature debate – End of Thread.

  • Anthony

    Correction @21: …”The Bell Curve” was an argument….

  • Thomas Wicklund

    It would have been nice to include a link to the report itself instead of a couple news stories about it.

  • Yahzooman

    Just call Head Start what it is … a glorified, federally-funded baby-sitting program.

    Feminists would go ape if it went away. That would mean they would have to raise their own kids instead of reaching their right to self-fulfillment and equality at work. It’s easier if we all raise their kids (“it takes a village,” you know).

  • Kelly

    It’s just a free babysitting service. Same goes for the pre-k programs many public schools have for 4 year olds.

  • LHog

    Anthony, the question you fail to address is very telling. There is no question that early childhood education can be effective and pay rewards for a lifetime.
    What you and others fail to answer is the question Why does the Federal Government have to do it? There’s always this fallacious assumption that if the Feds do it it gets done with ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’. Equal Opportunity and all that blather. What we’ve done for half a century is give ‘equal opportunity’ to a very narrow select segment of society, segregating them from the rest of society and giving them a distinctly inferior ‘head start’ in their education. Equal Opportuninty to an inferior education is nothing to brag about. We must examine what we are doing from the local level on up and make sound judgments as to who is responsible for the kids education, the parents or the Government?

  • And Nancy Pelosi is plotting to take over the House in 2012 on universal pre-school platform.

  • SDN

    Same goes for the pre-k programs many public schools have for 4 year olds.


  • Charlene

    @21: Anthony, whether or not the research is “dated” isn’t the point. The point is that for a large portion of the population not much is ever going to work and we should stop wasting our money. “Early childhood intervention” in the form of Head Start has not done its job and should be eliminated. As a parent, I recall looking at public kindergartens (at the time I was quite open-minded about looking at all the possibilities for my children). I was frankly appalled at the quality of not only the teaching (and these were the highest ranked schools in my very-blue-city) but at the children in the classrooms. Many did not know the names of colors, couldn’t count to ten, didn’t know any letters. And this was toward the end of the school year. Several of the youngsters were ex-Head Start. Not acceptable.
    @10: Asher Abrams: You sound intelligent and educated. Is there some reason you can’t pay for your own pre-school and not expect the rest of us to foot the bill? Just asking.

  • Ralph Gizzip

    Why does Head Start have to be a Federal program? Why not have 50 different Head Start programs tailored to the 50 different States? The problem with Federal programs is they are, by necessity, a one-size-fits-all plan when what may be best for California is wholly unnecessary for North Dakota.

    Take the power, and the money, away from the Federal Government and let each State administer their own version of the program.

  • bandit

    Not only doesn’t it help it engenders lifetime dependency and child neglect.

  • sportutegirl

    7 billion to serve 1 million children is 7000 per child per year. Most church based or private preschools charge about 300 to 500 per semester or less than 1000 per year, doing a better job in the process. It should be illegal for government to pay more for an product that is available better and cheaper elsewhere.

  • How about (1) killing programs that don’t work and (2) not starting programs that are not proven to work.

    We shoudl shut down the departments of Energy, Education, Agriculture, HUD, HHS merely for being unconstitutional, but if that isn’t enough for you, for being counterproductive, in not producing energy, not furthering education, not facilitating agriculture, not creating housing or urban development, and not advancing health.

  • Luke Lea
  • Michael

    To the gentleman who stated that he and his wife believe Head Start has been wonderful for his child: Well, of course it has. You’re obviously educated middle-class people who raised a child in an environment that values education. But you’re not who the program is aimed at. It’s aimed at “at risk” children of uneducated parents without child raising skills, without a solid family environment, and who don’t read to their children.

    Some studies have shown a positive effect for HS that disappears within a few years- i.e., as soon as they get into the public school system. Maybe what we need instead of HS is more competition to provide safe state funded schools where learning is prized.

  • TMink

    “the government has been eroding and usurping parental responsibility for child rearing for decades, without positive results.”

    Good point. And the point of this research is that government cannot solve a family problem. Those kids suck academically because their parents do not teach them. So put them in head start, where somebody tries to teach them, and they do better till about third grade when there is no effect size.

    That is because government cannot solve a family problem. Having kids outside of marriage if the best predictor of most of our social ills. The government cannot fix that.


  • Luke Lea

    Instead of sending them checks, it might be cheaper to subsidize their wages. That and legalize drugs so as to take all the money and glamor out of the drug trade. Change the incentives.

  • scf

    “These days, defenders of Head Start say less about what it does for kids (essentially nothing) but about the jobs it creates in poor neighborhoods. This is blue liberal thinking at its most self-parodic: we can’t develop social programs that will accomplish something worthwhile, but we can at least use the illusion that such programs work to create jobs for people who will then vote for the politicians who give them make work jobs.”

    Actually, no, the proper summary is worse:
    We can’t develop social programs that accomplish something worthwhile, but we can at least pay people to waste their time and our money.

  • b

    @12 ” This effectively redistributes money away from those poor communities, and right back towards the middle-class college grauates”

    Stipulating everything you say for the sake of argument, so what? (Although I fail to see how the money is being redistributed *away* from people who did not have it to begin with…)

    The point of the program is not to redistribute money to poor people–Or maybe it is in in your world; exactly the problem Prof. Mead and other posters describe.

    This study is just another in a long line which have demonstrated *zero* lasting effect from Head Start. I really doubt that one more study will change anything–too many have been coopted by the welfare state at this point.

    Just think of how many make-work government jobs exist these days. Imagine how much capital and resources we are wasting breaking windows and digging holes in this country. But the problem is that the left has so many people on the gravy train–yeah I’m looking at you, you, and you out there in internet land–that it is nearly impossible to stop the waste, even in the face of massive, unsustainable, multi-trillion dollar deficits.

  • Janeg

    Asher Abrams, your daughter is going to do fine in school with or without Head Start because she has you and her mother and you care about her education.

  • DADvocate

    File this under the “We needed a study to tell us that?” category. (Apparently Anthony needs does.) As a parent of four children born in the years 1971,1988, 1993 and 1996, I’ve never seen a child come out of a Head Start program, or other government run early education program, who seemed to become more advanced for these efforts. On the other hand, smart kids with with involved parents, and average kids with involved parents, seem to do just fine.

    • tea Stenn

      Head start goal is to get parents involved!? Look it up, there goal is teach poor families to be involved in their childs lives for the reason you just mentioned?

  • mcra99

    Who is teaching the Head-Start classes and children? The same people who are at home with them. There is no difference…so who would expect a change in cognition and behavior?

  • Toni

    At least Head Start has been studied. How many other federal programs don’t work?

  • @ 35 Michael –
    I have a high school diploma, which most people do not consider “educated”. Sophie’s mom lives in a poor neighborhood. Her neighbor is a drug dealer. She is exactly who this program is aimed at.

  • KT

    Last I read, Finnish children did not start school until age 7 and their educational test results are much better than ours. Parents there are known for reading to their children, and they probably talk to them when they are infants.

    In the U.S., little boys in particular are often pressured to start reading too young, when they should be learning social skillls, leading to misery at school. I didn’t start reading until I was 7, and I tested highest in my class at 8. Putting kids in a one-size-fits-all program when they are young seems counter-productive to me.

  • Goyo

    In 1971 between my junior and senior year at Omaha Central High School I volunteered for Head Start (still have my certificate). Every weekday I got on the bus and rode to the “Near North Side” of Omaha. What struck me was that the kids in the class had no interest in the games or songs that were on the schedule and little interest in the lunch. The only thing they wanted was to be held, to sit on my lap and take my arms and wave them back and forth, always ending wrapped around them. They wanted love and the security that that love would always be there. I couldn’t give that to them. I got back on the bus every day and went home.

  • Marty

    Head Start began ca. 1965 when there was some money left over in HEW’s budget at the end of the fiscal year and they were looking for something to spend it on. Someone had heard of a tiny early childhood program in some town in Michigan that seemed to be well-regarded, so the HEW poeple threw together a program VERY loosely modeled on that and put it out there for grants.

    That’s it. No science at the beginning, a tiny model that involved very intensive parental involevemnt that was not part of the HEW program and did not scale, and all subsequent program evaluations distorted to make it look better than it really is.

    In other words, business as usual in Washington.

    • tea Stenn


  • JD

    Many good insights from previous posters. I pose the question. Have any of the proponents of Head Start etc. etc. ever pondered why the previous educational system settled upon a starting age of approximately six years? Perhaps those educators understood something?

  • HC

    Head Start is a classic ‘sacred cow’ that has been untouchable for years because it fulfilled so many political and emotional needs on the part of so many people (which does not include the children supposedly helped by it). The news media simply would not cover negative information about it because they wanted it to work so badly.

    (A common theme in news coverage, including on the Right. The ‘red’ or ‘right’ news media, including talk radio, are an excellent counterbalance to the MsM, but they routinely skip over stuff they find inconvenient for their agenda, too. ALWAYS consume news and commentary with skepticism, and ALWAYS discount for the particular agendas.)

    But if we’re going to do something about things like this, we’re going to need better arguments and approaches than ‘blue failure!’ and ‘public employees unions are evil!’

    As a warning note, look to Ohio. The same electorate, the same _people_ who voted to condemn Obamacare in the recent election there are smacked Governor Kasich down hard for overreaching and because they didn’t like his attitude, and his foolishness may well have cost us Ohio in Novemeber in the effort to remove the threat of a 2nd Obama term.

    The underlying political divide in this country is not red/blue, nor is it public vs. private. It overlaps and cuts across those categories and some of the very voters who helped hand the Dems their 2010 shellacking are also sympathetic to some parts of the Blue Model while hating other parts of it.

    Politically speaking, we’re negotiating a mine field. Either we move cautiously and carefully, or we get blown up like Kasich.

  • HC

    Note too that the Time magazine coverage is carefully calibrated. Joe Klein does comment on the story, and gives a few passing credits to conservatives, but note that he opens it up with liberal conditions and finishes with a call for education by professional starting at infancy.

    This is a standard tactic among the Left media, when there’s a story you just _have_ to cover that does not fit the narrative, cover it but make sure you shroud it in extra commentary that insulates it and turns it into (as much as you can) a plug for your own agenda (the Right-wing media does that too, but has far less opportunity for it).

    This column was not so much an attack on Head Start, or a _mea culpa_ about it, as an exercise in _damage control_.

  • rjp

    I with people would just admit that funds for Head Start would be better used at the 5th grade on up dealing with illiterate students. Having taught high school, it was so disheartening to deal with illiterate seniors! forget 3-5 year olds who shouldn’t be expected to read yet- lets deal with a teenager who can’t read. I don’t know why we miss the boat on the crucial intervention time. Those pre-school years are best served by pre-schoolers enjoying pre-school life- namely, playing, playing, and a little more playing, along with some naps. It’s the pre-teen and teenagers that need the intervention.

  • Lavaux

    Head Start’s perpetuation despite its failure makes me worry that America will also soon fail. A nation that borrows 40% of the $4 trillion it spends keeping Utopian dreams alive despite all evidence of failure, waste and rapidly approaching penury can’t survive in this world.

    This is not entirely liberalism’s fault. Rather, it’s Americans taking America’s bounty for granted, not understanding where it comes from, assuming it will continue in future, and then borrowing against it to buy all the things that wealth can’t buy.

    To illustrate, imagine a low-income father leveraging all he owns to send his kids to the most expensive private school in town on the hope that doing so will elevate them class-wise. Eventually, he becomes so broke that he can’t feed, clothe and house his kids. So the state takes the kids away and puts them in a foster home run by two chain-smoking pederasts, from whose abuse the kids’ only respite is attending the failing public school their father risked everything to avoid.

  • HC

    ‘I don’t know why we miss the boat on the crucial intervention time. Those pre-school years are best served by pre-schoolers enjoying pre-school life- namely, playing, playing, and a little more playing, along with some naps. It’s the pre-teen and teenagers that need the intervention.’ — rjp

    We miss it because it’s hard. Doing something about that period (about which you are right) takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, and there is not that much payoff for doing in terms of politics. It doesn’t call for more money or more hiring so much as the people already employed doing things _differently_. Change is always unpopular.

    Head Start, preschool, infancy education, on the other hand, require more hiring, more budget, give the people doing it more influence over the kids (never underestimate the importance of ideological indoctrination to these people!), and moves us a step further toward their long-cherished dream of a nation-wide universal day-care system.

    Follow the money, follow the power, follow the self-interest. You’ll rarely go too far wrong doing that.

  • Tawana Atlanta

    What has bothered me with Head Start is how the culture of many of the so-called “teachers” affects the children. It’s quite often a culture of violence, unfortunately. The teachers will promote a “hit ’em back” philosophy. When one kid hits another kid, they’ll say, “Well, you can go over and hit ’em back. You got my permission. Go do it.” I’ve heard this so many times from a lead teacher in a Head Start classroom. The Teaching Assistant will stand by witnessing all this and she’ll say nothing. They’ll look at me with that, “You ain’t gonna say nothin’ about this. You supposed to ignore all this.” The victim will go over and pop the other kid in the head. Sometimes that ends it all and it’s done. Sometimes the perpetrator will sneak in a pot shot when the other kid isn’t looking. These Head Start teachers are encouragin these three and four year old students to fight. That’s the culture and that’s what alot of the Head Start teachers are doing; they’re teaching the kids how to use violence to find their place in the pecking order of the classroom community.

  • Jeanette O. Keyes

    It is amazing the number of opinions noted related to this topic that have little to no merit. I speak from experience – hands on that is. I worked for six years as a Head Start Director. I have 25 years of regulatory compliance, adjunct faculty, HR director and many years educating students. Head Start is no different than any other organization. If you want quality staff then you hire them. I started during a time when there was the requirement for education mandates for staff. As of this date 80 percent of the teachers have Bachelors and Associate degrees. In fact several of the lead teachers have Masters. Parents are involved in fatherhood programs, reading programs tied to the curriculum being taught, on educational and nutritional committees, parent boards etc… Parents receive training monthly. The list goes on and on. Yes, I have told Joe it is not so. I guess it depends on where you are located and what is the norm in the city you reside. Parents have called to tell me that their children were admitted in to the local Magnet school program as a result of Head Start. The program is designed for the economic disadvantaged/ below the poverty line. It makes no difference if you are Black, White, Asian, Hispanics etc… Please let’s stop labeling people because they are part of a HS program. Many families that are in poverty had no choice related to their circumstances but have the same high aspirations for their children as the 2% (wealthy) that reside in this great USA.

    • tea Stenn

      This is a great comment, and I have not read any others, I am currently doing a research paper on the effectiveness of Head Start and its academic effects, if any… I would have to say I have not found any studys on the academic success from Head Start children. But when you comment on race like that isn’t a factor that is false. I have two sons, now age 10 and 12, they were both in Head Start, but my oldest was denied when he was 3 because they do not let 3 year olds in without major need for full time and as a sinlge working/student mother the only relevant need what if he was primarily Spanish speaking. They couldn’t take my english speaking son because he spoke english and was not hispanic. With my second son I found a way to struggle at the age of three through the half day program. There is a GREAT difference in my two sons academically, both are very proficient and intelligent in math, but my oldest is less proficient in language arts. I can not say that is was due to the lack of Head Start at age 3, but I can say that I was discriminated against for not being a Spanish speaking household, and for a long time held a big grudge. Poverty is poverty, regardless of language spoken in the home.!

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