Is Head Start worth the price?

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I’m a new mom and a researcher specializing in early childhood. I’ve spent my career studying how to give kids their best chance at a bright future, so I started looking for a preschool for my daughter early on. I was soon looking at a price tag for preschool that rivaled tuition at many colleges. In my home state of Massachusetts, the average preschool costs anywhere from $12,176 to $16,430 per year. The average full-time minimum-wage worker in Massachusetts makes $20,800 per year (the U.S. average is even lower — $15,080). In response to this impossible math, the government provides Head Start, a federally funded preschool for low-income families and families with foster kids.

{mosads}Head Start provides a unique “two-generation” approach to schooling: preschool programming for children and social services to families. Since the program’s launch in the 1960s, policymakers and the public have debated the effectiveness of Head Start. Are its results worth the price tag?

In 2016, President Obama called for $10.1 billion to be spent on Head Start. With so much money at stake, and not enough to go around for social services, it’s important to give Head Start a rigorous and fair evaluation. So far, public debates around Head Start have cherry-picked facts from decades of research to paint oversimplified pictures of a complex situation.

Several studies of Head Start have established something called the “Head Start Fade Out.” They found that children who graduated from Head Start were academically ahead of their non-Head Start peers. For example, one nationwide study of 5,000 children found that Head Start graduates began kindergarten with significant gains in vocabulary, applied problem solving, pre-literacy skills such as letter recognition and spelling, and color identification.

But, over time, the academic advantages of Head Start faded. By third grade, there were no academic differences between Head Start graduates and children who did not attend the program.

There is a lot we don’t yet understand about the Head Start Fade Out. Many question if the fade could be the result of Head Start graduates stagnating after they enter K-12 public schools or if kids that never attended preschools simply learn at a rapid rate and catch up to Head Start graduates. Either way, given Head Start’s cost, taxpayers understandably would like to see lasting results.

Despite academic fade, researchers have found advantages from Head Start. Countless studies have examined the lifetime impacts of the program and have found that Head Start graduates are more likely to finish high school and stay out of jail, and they are less likely to rely on welfare. These results produce an oft-cited statistic that claims every $1 invested in Head Start produces a $7 to $9 return by reducing government spending on criminal justice, welfare and remedial education services.

How could a program with questionable academic benefits produce such results?

The program provides children with a stable environment during one of the most critical developmental stages of life while offering intensive social services to stabilize their families. More stable family lives may help those children stick it out when school becomes difficult.

Defining success in Head Start has been a challenge. If success is defined by a lifetime of test scores, then Head Start has failed. But if success means higher high school graduation rates, lower crime rates, and lower welfare spending, then Head Start is a great success.

Without a doubt, Head Start students enter kindergarten academically ahead of their peers who did not attend preschool. Perhaps the subsequent Head Start Fade Out happens because of under-resourced public schools. A patient who controls their diabetes with diet and exercise will see their condition return when they stop dieting and exercising. Similarly, if the family supports provided by Head Start are removed, as they often are in K-12 public schools, the benefits of Head Start fade away.

As public schools face budget cuts, they often cut school social workers and counselors first. Some districts end up with roughly 400 students per social worker. Clearly, one person can’t provide adequate support to help 400 families in need.

Children don’t exist in a vacuum; supporting families is essential to helping children. The greatest teacher in the world cannot adequately help a homeless student who sleeps in a subway station every night. Head Start exemplifies an effective approach to education, but it can only go so far. Policymakers must offer social services for families throughout K-12 schools, too, if they truly want to give every kid his or her best chance at a bright future.

Leong is a part-time faculty member at Salem State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Tags crime rate Education graduation rate Head Start preschool test score Welfare

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