1/18/13 Head Start’s Late Surge Comes Too Early

The Head Start program, a product of the Lyndon B. Johnson Great Society, has come under some tight scrutiny recently. Expect this to continue for a while. Head Start’s Mission Statement is: Head Start promotes school preparation by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services. Head Start programs are administered locally, mostly by local governments, non-profit groups, and school systems who furnish 20% matching funds in order to get Head Start grants from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which is an entity internal to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

There has been some question as to Head Start’s effectiveness. Consequently, Congress authorized a study by HHS to determine the impact of Head Start on the outcomes of the economically disadvantaged children it served. A link to the main study’s executive summary is shown below.


The results of a follow-up study tracking the outcomes of children through the third grade was just released by HHS. Head Start is drawing some criticism for its performance based on the report. A link to this report’s executive summary is shown below.


While the initial report is not flattering to Head Start’s effectiveness, the follow-up report is even less so. That these reports are unfavorable indictments of one of HHS’s most visible and long-term programs is certainly a departmental, internal disappointment.

A myriad of articles and editorials are available on-line for one to read at will, citing statistics from the above studies (and many others, since the desire to determine Head Start’s effectiveness has been around as long as Head Start), some as harsh as the reports above, others pointing fervently to the few statistics that indicate some benefits of Head Start participation, and others, critical of the reports that instruct us on how to properly interpret them. In other words, there are those who tell us not to take what is contained in the reports at face value, that a proper first-class deconstruction of them is necessary to separate out the desired indications. The above links are not to the reports, themselves, but to their executive summaries, which is the very tool provided by those conducting the study for executives to use to make management decisions. It is odd that some indicate the executive summary, alone, is not suitable for this purpose, since that is its purpose. That those charged with failing to live up to their mission would question the methodology and veracity of a report indicating their ineffectiveness is hardly surprising, is it?

The studies compared Head Start participants with a similar economic circumstance control group that used alternatives, including other care facilities and staying at home in parental care. Little difference between Head Start participants and the control group was found in the main study, and the follow-up study indicates that there is no discernible impact remaining by the third grade. The reports beg the question that if there is no discernible impact for children in Head Start participation over the group that stayed home with their parents, why spend $8 billion a year on it?

We are being encouraged by some to sweep aside the statistics offered by the reports as unreliable, and to make assessments of Head Start based on anecdotal evidence of its immediate impact in the lives of the children it is intended to serve: to consider that the children spend the days in a safe environment, get hot meals served to them that they otherwise might not get, and get medical, dental, and mental health screenings and care, in addition to the intended educational head start. The study finds that there is no significant difference between the Head Start group and the control group in nearly every category that was monitored.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) also conducted its own investigation into fraud and abuse within the Head Start system, finding the children were recruited and enrolled from families who did not qualify for Head Start participation. The GAO also found that families were encouraged by Head Start staffers to under-report their income so as to appear to be qualified by keeping their reported incomes below the qualifying level, which is 130% of the Federal Poverty Level for their size family.

Many have called for the complete elimination of Head Start due to its ineffectiveness. The hard part is that once a program is entrenched, it is nearly impossible to kill due to its own internal support mechanisms. No one at HHS wants to admit that one of its flagship programs is ineffective, but ineffective is what its own report indicates.

I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to defend this program from those who would cut off its funding. In the private world, ineffectiveness is curtailed much quicker. Only in the mysterious world of government programs does ineffectiveness get rewarded with continuing funding. In the real world of government programs and funding, these reports will turn out to be crucial for Head Start’s continuation, since the best possible argument that can be advanced in its defense is that a lack of funding causes its ineffectiveness. More money would solve everything.

We often hear of “bloated” government programs, yet there is not a single government program head that considers his own program “bloated.”  His is, most likely, significantly underfunded.

Taxpayers are getting no dividend on the money invested, at least, not on any scale that is measurable. Oddly, too, the report’s control group consisted of children who either stayed at home or were enrolled in other “care” facilities. Try using the word “care” modified by the word “day” in front of it and see how inflammatory it is with Head Start supporters. The biggest benefit of Head Start to children, though it was not considered in the reports, is likely its ability to effectively point parents to other government programs that will help them. Head Start’s medical and dental services are mostly screening services. The actual health care is nearly always provided under Medicaid, since an economically disadvantaged family that qualifies for Head Start will be qualified for it as well, particularly under the programs instituted in most states that ensure Medicaid coverage for children. Perhaps Head Start’s parental guidance services consist of telling a parent that their child is ill and needs to see a doctor. If so, the health benefit for the children participating in Head Start over the control group? Insignificant.

I’d hate for my program to be labeled insignificant and ineffective. I regret that theirs is. For one thing, the children who are its very raison d’etre are not served. Nor are the taxpayers. So who IS served? Hmmm! Apparently not Head Start staff and workers, who  all claim to be severely underpaid. Perhaps it’s the management. Perhaps it’s those to whom they paid so much for all those studies. Maybe it’s no one. If it IS no one, then fixing it should be easy. 

We already know it’s not the children.

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