How to Fix Head Start: It Works Better Than You’ve Heard, But It Still Needs Reform

By Robert Gordon and Sara Mead

Congressman Paul Ryan declared in his recent report on poverty that Head Start is “failing to prepare children for school”—an assessment that the program’s critics share and would use to cut its funding. But such criticisms misstate what the evidence reveals. The critics focus on the most recent majorevaluation, a randomized control trial in which Head Start participants made solid initial gains that faded by third grade. This was indeed a troubling result. But studies with older data, using less air-tight but widely accepted methods, found that Head Start graduates were better off even into their twenties.  Although the critics don’t acknowledge it, Head Start looks comparatively less strong today partly because high quality preschool programs now benefit many more children outside Head Start.

But this much is true: Head Start could do better. While the program appears to make a real, lasting difference in some respects—by better preparing children for kindergarten, for example, and improving their long-term health—it has a weaker effect on elementary school learning (which also matters for long term results).  Evaluations suggest that strong state preschool programs sustain gains in reading, math, or both in ways that Head Start doesn’t.  There’s no reason to think Head Start can’t produce similar results. In fact, some individual Head Start programs already do: Kids in them achieve vocabulary gains more than twice the Head Start average. But it will require some changes.

Some of the program’s defenders may bristle at such talk, for fear that any questioning of Head Start’s effectiveness  will reinforce the arguments of Ryan and those eager to downsize or even eliminate the program. But now is the time to talk about improving Head Start. Replicating results from the best Head Start programs would be a big boost for our nation’s poorest youngsters, enabling many more of them to start school much better prepared.

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