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J. Michael Smith, Esq.
President

Michael P. Farris, Esq.
Chairman

Head Start to Nowhere?

William A. Estrada, Esq.
Director of Federal Relations

Melanie Palazzo
Congressional Action Program Director

February 3, 2010

Head Start is a federal program created to improve school readiness for low-income children. It was created in 1965 and has continued to receive increased federal funding and to serve additional students. In 2007, it was servicing 908,412 children in the United States.1

HSLDA believes that the continuing growth of the federal government’s involvement in education is threatening local schools and parents who are trying to do what is best for their individual children. Nothing in the Constitution gives the federal government the power to manage the education of its citizens. Despite this, the federal government continues to expand its role in education, claiming that such interventions are necessary to achieve academic progress.

So is the federal government’s growing control over education helping students? We believe that it is not. In 1998, Congress requested that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conduct a study to find the impact of the Head Start Program. The results of that study were released this January and were not as positive as some may have liked.

Impact on Verbal and Math Skills

The impact study by HHS has shown that the Head Start program does increase cognitive development of children in its program. Concepts like color-identification, letter-word identification, and overall pre-academic skills tend to be stronger in children participating in Head Start. However, after testing these children in kindergarten and first grade, “no significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher reports of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year.” In fact, the study shows the only difference between children who spent two years in a Head Start program and other children in the first grade classroom is a 0.08 improvement in oral comprehension.2

“Fade-Out”

The HHS impact study is not the first study to show that government-run preschools have little long-lasting impact. The state of Georgia has a state-funded universal preschool. Georgia conducted a study of its early education program from 2001 to 2004. The study found that “by the end of the first grade children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia’s preschoolers.”3

Oklahoma also has a state preschool program which went universal in 1988. Oklahoma’s fourth graders were scoring higher then the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1992. Yet, when the first class of children from the universal preschool took the assessment in 1993, the scores went down. Oklahoma actually saw its scores continue to fall for the next 15 years, the only state that saw this continued drop. What is more, the Reason Foundation reported, “Georgia and Oklahoma are in the bottom 10 worst performers for reading on the NAEP fourth grade readers assessment in 2005.”4

New Jersey started providing 4-year-olds in low-income areas public preschool in 1996. Children in low-income areas scored 52 percent below average in 1992 before state preschool was provided. Children that would have gone through state preschool scored 55 percent below in 2005.5 As was the case in of Georgia and Oklahoma, New Jersey’s NAEP scores did not see a positive impact from public preschool but actually saw a negative result.

Clements, Reynolds, and Hickory conducted a study in 2004 of Chicago Child-Parent Centers and found that any positive impact a two-year preschool program created was “no longer significant in first grade.”6

Research shows again and again that there are no long-lasting positive impacts to public preschool. Even in 1969, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation evaluated Head Start and found that “Full year programs resulted in cognitive and language gains at the first grade but appeared to ‘fade out’ by second or third grade.”7

Emotional and Behavioral Impact

The recent impact study by HHS reveals that children in Head Start do have less hyperactive behavior. It also reports that parents say they have a better relationship with their children because of Head Start. The study goes on to say, “Parents in the Head Start group were less likely to have spanked their children…less likely to use time out as a disciplinary practice” and “less likely to have used an authoritarian parenting style.”8

Yet, the study also reports that in kindergarten and first grade, teacher reports show that children that have been in Head Start tend to be more problematic as well as show socially reticent behavior. Parents are also more likely to go back to using “an authoritarian parenting style”9 by the end of the first grade. The impact study tried to respond to this inconsistency by saying “it is difficult to interpret this finding which might reflect changes in either children’s behavior or parents’ reactions to it.”10

Parents—The Greatest Impact on Child Behavior

There have been several different studies done of children’s behavior in state preschool. A National Institute of Health study released in 2007, found “that the more time children spent in center-based care before kindergarten, the more likely their teachers were to report such problem behaviors as ‘gets in more fights’, ‘disobedient at school,’ and ‘argues a lot’ .”11

A report by Stafford University in 2005 stated “entering preschool centers—especially for many hours each day—may hold negative social-developmental outcomes for children, including disruptive and more aggressive behavior in centers and later in school.”12

Last March, a study by Jay Belsky was submitted as testimony before Congress. The study said, “Jay Belsky and colleagues…demonstrated that parenting quality significantly predicted all developmental outcomes measured including reading, math, and vocabulary achievement into the fifth and sixth grade, making it the most important factor in child’s development.”13

The Head Start impact study also found that the children that were likely to have the lowest scores had depressed parents. The earlier parental involvement is cut back in a child’s life, the more behavioral problems children have in school. A 2002 NICHD study found that preschool hinders “motivation to engage in classroom tasks.”14 While children that stay at home in their early years have normal interactions in kindergarten, the Head Start impact study shows that 3- and 4-year-old children that are sent to Head Start tend to be more shy. Parental involvement is the key to a child’s success.

Parental Rights

More and more states are refusing government funds for education because of the numerous strings the federal government attaches to federal funds. Yet, the federal government is increasingly involving itself in educational matters. The new term that seems to be in every education bill or policy made in Washington, D.C. is “birth to twelfth grade.”

Some statements in the Head Start impact study hint at the federal government's aim for control:

  • “Improved childcare and pre-k standards across the nation.”15
  • “More likely to participate in a second year of Head Start if there was less competition from other preschools in the area.”16
  • “Among children in the 3-year-old cohort (parent selected programs) 38.4 percent of control group children were in parental care as compared to only 6.7 percent of children in the Head Start group.”17

The aim for Head Start is to have more and more children in their programs and less in other preschools or parental care.

Cost and Need

The average cost per child in the Head Start program is $7,326.18 Just this December, $7 billion was given to Head Start in the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations bill.19 This huge expense is not only going towards a program that has limited impact, but also to a program that doesn’t have a large demand. Eighty percent of preschool age children are currently enrolled in a preschool.20 Out of this number, 80 percent are enrolled in private schools.21

Conclusion

Seven billion dollars towards a program that shows no positive long-term impact for 20 percent of the preschool aged children in America doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Edward Ziglar, the co-founder of Head Start said in 1987, “Those who argue in favor of universal preschool education ignore evidence that indicates early schooling is inappropriate for many four-year olds and that it may even be harmful to their development.”22 To continue to give huge sums of money to Head Start in order to expand it, to push enrollment, and separate more and more children from their parents will not be beneficial. Educational options should be encouraged and parental rights to choose the best for their children should be defended in order to provide the best suitable education and emotional development for our children.

 Other Resources

“Head Start Earns an F: No Lasting Impact for Children by First Grade” (The Heritage Foundation)

“The Early Learning Challenge Fund: Increased Federal Role in Early Education” (The Heritage Foundation)

“The Poverty of Preschool Promises Saving Children and Money with the Early Education Tax Credit” (The Cato Institute) (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

“Early Education Shows No Benefit” (HSLDA)

“Why Government Should Stay out of Pre-K” (HSLDA) (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Head Start Impact Study and Follow-up (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Endnotes

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Program Fact Sheet,” February 2008, at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ohs/about/fy2008.html (January 22, 2010).

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Impact Study Final Report: Executive Summary,” January 2010.

3 Lindsey Burke, “Does Universal Preschool Improve Learning? Lessons from Georgia and Oklahoma,” Heritage Foundation, November, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2272.cfm (January 22, 2010).

4 U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, at http://nces.gov/nationsreportcard.

5 Karen R. Effrem, MD, “Evidence of Academic or Emotional Harm of Preschool Education or All-Day Kindergarten,” EdWatch, March 2008, at http://www.edwatch.org/updates08/031908-emotionalharmw.pdf (January 22, 2010).

6 UC Berkeley/Stanford report, “The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children’s Development Nationwide: How Much is Too Much?” November 2005.

7 Sharon M. McGroder, “Head Start: What Do We Know about What Works,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 1990, at http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/headstar.htm (January 22, 2010).

8 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Impact Study Final Report: Executive Summary,” January 2010.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Karen R. Effrem, MD, “Evidence of Academic or Emotional Harm of Preschool Education or All-Day Kindergarten,” EdWatch, March 2008, at http://www.edwatch.org/updates08/031908-emotionalharmw.pdf (January 22, 2010).

12 UC Berkeley/Stanford report, “The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children’s Development Nationwide: How Much is Too Much?” November 2005.

13 Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor meeting, March 17, 2009.

14 Karen R. Effrem, MD, “Evidence of Academic or Emotional Harm of Preschool Education or All-Day Kindergarten,” EdWatch, March 2008, at http://www.edwatch.org/updates08/031908-emotionalharmw.pdf (January 22, 2010).

15 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Impact Study Final Report: Executive Summary,” January 2010.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Program Fact Sheet,” February 2008, at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ohs/about/fy2008.html (January 22, 2010).

19 “H.R. 3288: Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010,” Government Printing Office at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_bills&docid=f:h3288enr.txt.pdf (January 22, 2010).

20 Barnett, Epstein, Friedman, Boyd, and Hustedt, “The State of Preschool 2008.”

21 Don Soifer, “Federal Early Childhood Education Proposals Could Prove Hazardous for Children, Taxpayers,” The Lexington Institute, March 26, 2009, at http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/federal-early-childhood-education-proposals-could-prove-hazardous-for-children-taxpayers?a=1&c=1136 (January 22, 2010).

22 Karen R. Effrem, MD, “Evidence of Academic or Emotional Harm of Preschool Education or All-Day Kindergarten,” EdWatch, March 2008, at http://www.edwatch.org/updates08/031908-emotionalharmw.pdf (January 22, 2010).