Federal Policies for Improving the Head Start Program

October 12, 2010

The Obama administration announced changes aimed to improve the Head Start program – an $8 billion per year federal initiative that accomplishes much less than some other preschool programs that boost child development and learning. A new collection of papers co-edited by Ron Haskins, senior fellow and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, assesses federal policies for early childhood education, and includes ways to reform these programs to make them better targeted, more effective, and provide better taxpayer bang-for-the buck in these tough fiscal times.

Head Start is Not Effective
Head Start is the biggest of the programs. We spend about $8 billion federal dollars every year on Head Start and it enrolls something like 900,000 (it is difficult to count and depends on when you count during the year because kids go in and out, but around 900,000), so it is a very big program. It has been in existence since 1965, so the charge that is has not had time to blossom is not correct. And yet evaluations have shown(especially recent and by far the best that have been done so far) that it produces very modest impacts at the end of the program year, when you would expect impacts to be the biggest, but at the end of the first year of school, there are virtually no impacts. So Head Start really leaves some questions. We are spending $8 billion on a program that does not produce very big outcomes.

Head Start’s Political Turning Point
Head Start has been, more or less, untouchable for many years, primarily because Members of Congress are sympathetic to programs for children. And Head Start, over the years, has been built up as probably one of the only successful war-on-poverty programs. Over the years, every time someone tried to even criticize Head Start (and there was an onslaught of people who said ‘it doesn’t work’) [others would say] “it’s a good program,” and “be quiet.”

A second factor that I think is really important is that the evidence has been pretty equivocal. You could not make a strong case that Head Start produces these wonderful impacts, but you could make a moderate case [that it does], and you could make a moderate case that it did not produce very good impacts. In this regard, I think the real turning point was that a bunch of the states – 42 to be exact – created their own pre-school programs primarily for poor kids (some of them are universal all-kids schools, but mostly they are for poor kids). Now why would the states do that, since Head Start already has the program for poor kids? So the states were thinking that “it is not performing that well” also.

Now is the Time to Change Head Start
Now is a great time to be looking carefully at these programs; in fact, that is why we published this book at this point because we wanted to look at a broad sweep of the pre-school programs. The first reason it is important is because these programs have been around for a long time. They have had a chance to really mature, and so it is not like they are brand new programs that we really don’t know if they are not fully implemented yet. They are implemented. They have been implemented for a long time, so now let’s find out if they are really working. That is the first thing.

The second thing is the Obama administration, probably more than any previous administration, is really focused on the pre-school area. They have a lot of very good people in the administration. They have already shown they are really focused on pre-school, so now is the time to figure out if these programs are not working, and make changes when we have people in the administration. The president would really like to do that.

The third reason is that we are going to be cutting programs over the next who knows how many years. At some point, Congress must start cutting programs, because of our huge budget deficit that is just not sustainable. And when that happens, of course, we want to cut bad programs and not good ones. So that is a reason to sort through these programs and figure out “well that’s pretty good – let’s keep it,” or “cut it only a little,” or “this one’s pretty bad – let’s end it or cut it a lot.” So that is another reason that this is a very, very good time to be looking at these programs very carefully.

Ways to Improve Fed Preschool
Our main recommendations on Head Start? We have two big recommendations – one of which, interestingly, the administration is already in the process of implementing (it wasn’t when we recommended it). And that is they should re-compete unsuccessful Head Start programs, so let the market help. That is a radical proposal. People have tried to do things along those lines before. Congress has already indicated that it supports it, so I think that is going to happen. The regulation is out. It will maybe be six months before things really get rolling, but that is a very important one.

Then the other one, even more radical, is to give states more control over Head Start because they already have their own pre-school programs, and several others in the pre-school area like day care programs. So if they could better coordinate Head Start and these other programs we might get more bang for the buck.

Probably, the other most important recommendation applies to Early Head Start, and here we think the evidence is that the program is not working very well. It is not clear exactly what the program is doing. So the administration needs to try new things, and carefully evaluate them, and develop a new model (or maybe three or four models) for how it would be best to implement an Early Head Start program with children who are three, or two, or even one. So those are our three, I think, most important recommendations.