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Head Start for All? - Thoughts on a Wall Street Journal Editorial

This article is based on the editorial printed in The Wall Street Journal on February 25, 2013.  To read the editorial, visit:

Head Start for All
Universal preschool and a government that won't admit failure.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323495104578314552761070738.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEADTop

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I am a supporter of Head Start, and I’m saddened that, in too many communities and in the public perception, Head Start has been equated with preschool.  The President’s latest proposal to create a universal preschool (pre-K) program for all children, and citing Head Start success studies to promote the proposal, is inaccurate and misguided.  The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page does an excellent job of explaining the problems with the misuse of Head Start and decades-old Head Start study data to expand what has become a seriously flawed program.

I’ve learned quite a bit about Head Start and associated programs over the years.  My consuting firm has prepared successful Head Start and Even Start grant applications for several clients, including charitable nonprofits and school districts.  Our firm’s senior partner has served as a federal peer reviewer for Head Start, reviewing grant applications and identifying those proposals suitable for funding.  She has also served as the chair of a local Head Start Policy Council and as the secretary of the South Dakota Head Start Association. 

There’s a reason Head Start is administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and not by the US Department of Education.  Preschool is only one component of a properly designed Head Start program.  Head Start is designed to help children become ready to learn by strengthening family function.  Done right, Head Start serves families, not just children.  In addition to preschool experiences, Head Start provides health, parent involvement, and social services to families.  The theory behind Head Start is that successful family function is tied to each child’s education and life success.  Poverty is a threat to successful family function and, therefore, a danger to a child’s escaping poverty as an adult.  Head Start is designed to help the child by helping the family cope with, and even reduce the stresses associated with poverty.

The Wall Street Journal editorial addresses studies of long-term success of children in Head Start.  It cites two longitudinal studies, one begun in the 1960s and the other in the 1970s, which document long-term positive outcomes for children in Head Start programs.  The programs studied included many family-focused health, human, and social services features in addition to preschool education, and carried an annual per-child cost of $16,000 to $41,000 -- equivalent to college tuition.  [Today’s almost $8 billion federal expenditure, including administrative overhead, funds services for just under one million children, or about $8,000 per year per child.]

Unfortunately, the positive outcomes from these early studies don’t show up in most later studies of Head Start children and families.  Short-term improvements in educational aptitude, social skills, etc., shown by children in Head Start begin to fade after 12-24 months.  Several studies indicate that the relative advantages of Head Start children over children not enrolled in Head Start disappears by the third or fourth grade.

As noted in the Journal editorial, those who support Head Start often observe that quality varies widely among Head Start programs, so studies of outcomes will also vary widely.  This is an odd argument.  If Head Start is replicable, then its results should also be replicable.  Head Start has numerous ways to build and enforce program consistency and quality, including federal, third-party, and locally-based resources.  The federal government provides the overwhelming majority of funding for Head Start, and that funding comes with detailed regulation of local program structure, curriculum, and governance.  Federal Head Start officials perform site visits to assure that local Head Start programs are run according to national standards.  These site visits are done by teams that spend several days at a time reviewing finances and program records while interviewing staff, volunteers, parents, and community leaders.  In addition to the tools available to the federal government directly, the nonprofit National Head Start Association provides conferences, training, and support for state and local Head Start staffs and volunteers.  Finally, it is expected that local Head Start organizations, through their Policy Councils, will help assure program quality.  Under federal regulation, Head Start families make up at least 50% of each Policy Council.  This is designed to assure that families have a voice in the services they receive, and also provides learning opportunities through leadership for Head Start families.

Using studies of comprehensive poverty-fighting programs to justify the “investment” in a scaled back preschool-only option does a disservice to everyone.  Children and families are denied the comprehensive services which will improve opportunities for long-term success.  Taxpayers waste money on expanding a program that doesn’t work already (because it has lost sight of its mission).  Head Start professionals, paraprofessionals, teachers, administrators, and communities devote their careers, passion, and even their lives to helping children while not being given the funds or program design to be able to be successful. 

If we’re going to devote almost $8 billion dollars and a million volunteers each year, plus the professional lives of all the staff necessary to carry out Head Start, we need to be candid about what the program is, and what it can be.  We need to be realistic about what it can achieve, and what it cannot achieve, as currently being implemented across the country.