March 21, 2011

Busting Myths About Head Start’s Effectiveness

When I was an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune and a public official said something aggressively wacky, what followed was an almost giddy rugby scrum among colleagues to set the record straight. Now, as an advocate for programs that educate very young children at risk of school failure, I hear so many comments rooted in bold ignorance of facts about this issue, yet have no such therapeutic recourse—with the notable exception of this blog. So I’m going to take on those misconceptions, one by one, in a series of “myth-buster” posts. As they say, cheaper than therapy.

So let’s start with a special shout-out to U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, who recently appeared in “Human Events,” an online publication, reheating this favorite chestnut of Head Start misunderstandings: Research shows Head Start is ineffective; all gains fade out by 3rd, or even 1st grade.

“We are broke, everything the federal government does needs to be looked at for how cost-effective it is,” said the freshman Congressman from Illinois. “Head Start, as the vast majority of the research and evidence suggests, does not make an appreciable long-term difference in the lives of the children it works with. ”

For starters, America is not broke. We have a deficit that has to be managed wisely with appropriate cuts AND investments that create economic growth. With that in mind, Head Start constitutes .2 percent of the federal budget. That’s right, one-fifth of one percent, but a mere freckle on the Sasquatch that is the federal budget.

So while it’s clear that obliterating Head Start wouldn’t even make a dent in the deficit, let’s take a tough look at its effectiveness. Congressman Walsh’s “evidence” is half-informed. There are two very important areas of measurement of young children that have bearing on long-term achievement and success. One is cognitive abilities, skills like knowing colors, numbers and letters—things that are fairly easily measured. The other is social-emotional – or “executive function” – skills. Social-emotional skills include persistence, attention, motivation and the ability to work in groups. Maybe they sound squishy, but in fact they’re critically important. Notably, when they’re learned in the first five years, they don’t fade out. Those are precisely the skills that allow children to be successful later not only as 3rd graders, and 11th graders, but in jobs. And those are precisely the skills – along with colors, letters and numbers – that Head Start has been successful at teaching.

Don’t take that from me, take that from Nobel laureate economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago, who explains “The Hard Facts Behind Soft Skills” in this great video:

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Heckman says Head Start and Early Head Start are “often unfairly judged and maligned. ” “Yes, we can and should do a better job in those programs, but the focus on the so-called ‘drop-off’ in elementary years is based solely on cognitive achievement, which data shows is less than half the equation for success. It also overlooks the fact that many Head Start children move from a nurturing early education environment into low quality elementary schools. … Yet, throughout the course of their education and lives, Head Start graduates tend to be more persistent in their education, more inclined to healthy behaviors and less inclined to be involved in criminal activity. Early Head Start and Head Start are programs on which to build and improve—not to cut. ”

A raft of long-term studies of Head Start reaches the same conclusion: Head Start students graduate from high school, go to college and get jobs at higher rates than their at-risk peers who do not experience early childhood education. The fact is that Head Start does work for a vast majority of children.

Could Head Start be better? Absolutely. Head Start knows this, and some sweeping changes to the program have been introduced since the last impact study. Another unheralded but huge change making its way through the administrative rules process in Washington right now is the introduction of competition to Head Start. It will make it that much easier to weed out less effective Head Start programs and build on higher quality ones, while also allowing dollars to shift more efficiently to areas of greatest need. Early Head Start, a program within Head Start that serves infants and toddlers, already operates with full competition, and it’s considered highly effective.

Again, don’t take my word for it. In this New York Times column begging for more government efficiency, Early Head Start, with its “gold-standard” research base, is the star program.

So, Representative Walsh, I’m with you. By all means, let’s invest in what’s effective: high-quality early learning for at-risk children. Now that you have all the evidence, can we count on your support?