How effective is Head Start?

In this file photo from March 2012, then Head Start participants Marcus Lawrence and Aliyah Sandoval showcased the sensory activities used to evaluate the developmental progress of students. (Hays Free Press File Photo)


Since 1965, American taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on Head Start, a federally funded pre-school program for low-income children. To give some perspective, the United States has spent more on Head Start than on the entire Apollo space program, which *cost between $110 and $145 billion (in 2007 dollars).

Head Start serves a million children each year nationally at a cost of about $7.2 billion, or a little more than $7,000 annually per child – roughly $600 a month.

According to Suad Hooper, the Head Start program director for Community Action, Inc. of Central Texas (Community Action), fewer than 600 of those million children are in Hays and Caldwell counties.

That program opened its doors in 1965. In fact, Sargent Shriver, the driving force behind the program in the Lyndon Johnson administration, visited Kyle to initiate the program, which was one of the first in the nation.

According to its annual report, Community Action now operates 13 Head Start and Early Head Start centers in Hays and Caldwell counties. Services include center-based early childhood experiences; access to physical and dental exams; screening for vision, hearing, speech, developmental, and behavioral concerns; immunizations; medical follow-up; and parenting information.

Introduced during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” platform, Head Start aimed for school readiness for disadvantaged children. Over the last 48 years, critics of Head Start have questioned the effectiveness of the program; they want to know if the cost to taxpayers is worth it.

Hooper says absolutely.


What the study tracks

In 2002, a congressionally-mandated evaluation of the effectiveness of Head Start began. The data collection ended in 2008. The study tracked three- and four-year-old children from Head Start through third grade.

The final report, released December 2012, indicates that while student performance during their time in Head Start was positively impacted, any gains were all but gone by third grade.

The study authors wrote, “All we can say is after the initially realized cognitive benefits for the Head Start children, these gains were quickly made up by children in the non-Head Start group.”

The scientifically rigorous research, called The Head Start Impact Study, included about 5,000 children from 84 program grantees across the United States.

The study was designed to assess whether beginning Head Start at age three was more beneficial than starting at age four. However, once the students entered elementary school, whether at a private or public institution, comparisons were made among the research subjects as well as all students in the grade level at that facility.

One of the key findings of the study read, “Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.”

Based on the report methodology, the evaluation compared assessments of skills in language and literacy, pre-writing (during Head Start years) and math along with teacher reports of performance and parent reports of child literacy skills and grade promotion.

The report authors continued, “There is clear evidence that Head Start had a statistically significant impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects dissipated in elementary school.”

The report also concluded, “Impacts aside, these children remain disadvantaged compared to their same-age peers; the scores of both the Head Start and the control group children remained lower than the norm for the population.”

In an article in Time magazine, author Joe Klein wrote, “These results were so shocking that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) team sat on them for several years, according to Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, who said, ‘I guess they were trying to rerun the data to see if they could come up with anything positive. They couldn’t.’”

Klein questioned why is Head Start run by HHS and not the Department of Education. The answer, he said, is that programs like Head Start are typically run by community action programs.

He wrote that a senior member of President Barack Obama’s administration admitted to him that Head Start is really a jobs program. In a recent article by former President George W. Bush aides in American Thinker, Charles N.W. Keckler and Ryan L. Cole agreed.

“This is an often-unrecognized characteristic of many social programs,” they wrote. “[These programs] provide work for teachers and caregivers and administrators in areas where employment is often low, and, especially in the current economy, political leaders are reluctant to cut people loose.”


Left to right, teacher Riso Millhollon, Ambassador Bill Crook and Sargent Shriver at Kyle Elementary in 1965 for the opening of a Head Start location, one of the first in the nation. Shriver was instrumental in launching Head Start as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative. (Hays Free Press File Photo)

Taking exception to the findings

But Hooper takes exception with the some of the report’s findings.

“The fact is Head Start does work for a vast majority of children,” she wrote in an email. “In my opinion the Study was yet another affirmation of the decades of rigorous peer-reviewed research showing that [it]works.”

Hooper said Head Start results in significant improvements in a wide variety of educational and life outcomes.

“[These outcomes include] increased high school graduation rates; fewer grade repetitions; fewer kids going into special education classes; higher vocabulary levels; better emotional development; reduced mortality rates of young kids; families moving out of poverty, and a significant impact on long-term outcomes of adults 19 years or older who attended Head Start,” she said.

Over the years since its inception, the HHS has made attempts, including several in the past few years, to determine the efficacy of the program and justify its continued $7.2 billion-a-year funding.

In January 2011, the HHS released the Head Start Roadmap to Excellence. That initiative, according to Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start, was to raise the level of quality across all Head Start programs to ensure that children and families receive the quality services they deserve.

In 2010, the HHS proposed new regulations that for the first time required lower performing Head Start programs to compete against other entities for continued funding. The agency also implemented training and assistance to help Head Start grantees meet the new standards.

Prior to the Head Start Reauthorization Act of 2007, grantees continued to receive funding even when yearly evaluations showed poor performance.

Fuentes said the new regulations list seven specific performance conditions that would automatically force a grantee into recompetition. The conditions fall under the categories of quality, licensing and operation and fiscal and internal controls.

Amanda Bryans, director of Education and Comprehensive Services in the Office of Head Start, in a 2012 conference call with Head Start grantees, told participants that a significant number of programs were really struggling with the establishment of school readiness goals.

Bryans went on to say that was a concern because, “by this point, we would really expect that all programs have well-articulated school readiness goals that reflect the five essential domains that are listed in the Child Development and Early Learning Framework.”

Yet what critics, and supporters, of Head Start often neglect to discuss is the critical role of families in the equation.

“A key factor in promoting positive outcomes for young children is the dynamic interaction between a child and a caring adult,” according to a 2010 statement by the HHS.

“In a Head Start program,” the statement read, “this means that teachers provide age-appropriate, classroom activities that provide children with meaningful experiences focused on specific learning objectives. At home, it means that Head Start programs work in partnership with families to help them support and reinforce the learning that goes on during a typical Head Start day.”

The HHS proposed increasing the emphasis on family literacy because, according to the statement, “research shows that having literate parents that sing, read aloud, and tell and retell stories to their children can have a large impact on the child’s vocabulary and reading readiness.”

At the time of the 2010 regulations, the research tracking study had finished data collection two year earlier but the release of the findings would take two more years.

Bryans told Head Start grantees, “We see children in Head Start who typically come in with – you know, on average, they have, for example, smaller vocabularies than children who are from families with higher income. On the other hand, kids in Head Start tend to make a great deal of progress in a small amount of time even if they don’t reach the national norm.”

Close to a third of Head Start staff are themselves former Head Start parents, according to Bryans.

Hooper said she thinks the implementation of Head Start can, and will, be improved, but the program needs help.

“Head Start has a 45-year history of continuous improvement.  But Head Start alone cannot do it! The communities must come together and ensure that every child is given an opportunity regardless of the conditions they are born into,” she said.


*Estimates from sources such as WhatItCosts and The Space Review and other online references differed.

Comment on this Article

About Author


Comments are closed.