Head Start – the comprehensive birth-to-five education and health
program serving nearly a million low-income children each year – is
one of the federal government’s best success stories. Unfortunately,
Head Start increasingly finds itself caught in the crossfire between
the opponents and proponents of expanded pre-kindergarten (pre-K)
services for children not now eligible for Head Start.
For opponents of wider pre-K, the assumption seems to be that they
have to “take out” Head Start first in order to lay waste to
“universal preschool.” The recent op-ed by Hoover Institution
senior fellow Chester Finn (“Targeted – not universal –
preschool is the answer,” May 19, 2009) is a prime example of this
The truth is that President Barack Obama, who has pledged to spend
$10 billion or more a year on “zero to five” education, and
Congress – which already has approved a $2.1 billion “down
payment” on that commitment for Head Start and Early Head Start –
have it exactly right: Head Start works. It gets results. And it is
extremely accountable in terms of how federal monies are spent.
Using Mr. Finn’s op-ed article as a guide, let’s take a look at
the myths and facts about Head Start.
Myth: Head Start is ineffectual.
Fact: Head Start is one of the best-documented
success stories in the federal government. Studies show that Head
Start generates benefits that exceed its costs. Our society receives
nearly $9 in benefits for every $1 dollar invested in Head Start
children, according to the preliminary results of a longitudinal study
of more than 600 Head Start graduates in San Bernardino County, Calif.
These projected benefits include increased earnings, employment and
family stability; and decreased welfare dependency, crime costs, grade
repetition and special education. Head Start benefits its children and
society at large by reducing crime and its costs to crime victims.
Head Start children are significantly less likely to have been charged
with a crime than their siblings who did not participate in Head
Myth: Head Start programs are shoddy and don’t
measure the right things, such as kindergarten readiness.
Fact: The federal government probably has more
information on the quality of Head Start programs than it does for our
major banks undergoing stress tests. Two nationally representative
studies from 2003 and 2005 – the Head Start Impact Study and the
Family and Child Experiences Survey, respectively – reveal that Head
Start programs are of consistently good quality. Head Start assesses
the kindergarten-readiness of its students through locally based
assessments and through multiple nationally representative studies of
the children enrolled in Head Start. The Head Start Impact Study found
statistically significant positive impacts for 3- and 4-year-old
enrolled children on pre-reading, pre-writing, vocabulary and parent
reports of children’s literacy skills.
Myth: Congress has forbidden Head Start to use
readiness measures to evaluate program effectiveness.
Fact: The fact that Congress terminated the
scientifically flawed Head Start National Reporting System did not
eliminate the use of other readiness measures. In fact, Head Start
programs must assess child outcomes three times a year and are
encouraged to follow the Head Start Child Outcomes framework and
assess children three times a year in eight developmental domains:
language development, literacy, mathematics, science, creative arts,
social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and physical
heath and development. In addition to the assessments that each local
program must undertake, the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services has conducted the Head Start Impact Study and the Early Head
Start Impact Study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Head Start and
Early Head Start programs, respectively.
Head Start prepares children for kindergarten and makes a
difference in the lives of its graduates as they progress through
their primary and secondary education. More than 200 years ago, John
Adams declared: “Facts are stubborn things.” When it comes to Head
Start, the stubborn facts demonstrate why it is that Head Start is the
premier national birth to five early childhood program.
Yasmina Vinci is executive director of the National Head Start
Association in Alexandria, VA.