Head Start Basically Has No Effect

by Jay Greene 
The Department of Health and Human Services has been sitting on an evaluation of the Head Start government run pre-school program. Well, the study was released.

As the leaks suggested, the study found virtually no lasting effects to participation in Head Start. The study used a gold-standard, random assignment design and had a very large nationally representative sample. This was a well done study.

For students who were randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 4, the researchers collected 19 measures of cognitive impacts at the end of kindergarten and 22 measures when those students finished 1st grade. Of those 41 measures, only 1 was significant and positive. The remaining 40 showed no statistically significant difference. The one significant effect was for receptive vocabulary, which showed no significant advantage for Head Start students after kindergarten but somehow re-emerged at the end of 1st grade.

The study used the more relaxed p< .1 standard for statistical significance, so we could have seen about 4 significant differences by chance alone and only saw 1. That positive effect had an effect size of .09, which is relatively modest.

For students randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 3, the researchers also collected 41 measures of lasting cognitive effects. This time they found 2 statistically significant positive effects and 1 statistically significant negative effect. For the students who began at age 3 they showed a .08 effect size benefit from Head Start in oral comprehension after first grade and a .26 effect size benefit in Spanish vocabulary after kindergarten but a .19 effect size decline in math ability at the end of kindergarten. Again, 38 of the 41 measures of lasting effects showed no difference and the few significant effects, which could be produced by chance, showed mixed results.

It is safe to say from this very rigorous evaluation that Head Start had no lasting effect on the academic preparation of students.

The long and short of it is that the government runs an enormously expensive pre-school program that has made basically no difference for the students who participate in it. And folks are proposing that we expand government pre-school to include all students. Those same folks have some bridges they’d like to sell.

Jay Greene is a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


  1. Big flippin’ surprise there. Another Government program with ZERO effect? Shocking. Think Post Office. Think Amtrak. There ya go…

  2. Think state-run daycare to mold kids to get used to living in this manner. The conformity of young Americans is depressingly astounding, but shouldn’t be a surprise since so many have grown up in institutional surroundings, trained to four walls and guided thinking. Actual EDUCATION wasn’t really ever the goal, it just was the SELL.

    Farm/ranch kids are jacks of all trades, but too many suburban and urban kids live in very organized, scheduled and limited constructs.
    Not intentional on the parents’ part, but social engineers who design these things know what results they want.

    State universities are not much different than adult daycare – dorms, food courts, mass transit – isolated little cocooned worlds of centralized planning with the computer-chip Student ID the pass to what that world offers. An unrealistic and dependency way of life not enountered outside the campus limits.

    We are not producing the same quantity or quality of adaptable and inventive 18 year olds who signed up to fight World War II.

  3. kralmajales says

    What most studies have said about programs about head start is just this indeed, but conservatives using it to kill the program often leave out an important part. The programs do increase IQ, readings skills, math but all of that can fall back over time when a student enters back into school systems that society doesn’t care to support.

  4. kralmajales says

    “We are not producing the same quantity or quality of adaptable and inventive 18 year olds who signed up to fight World War II.”

    You have to be kidding right? Those were days when higher education was only affordable by the wealthy. It was indeed a govt. program around the time of World War II that changed this…its called the GI Bill…and we should update it and expand it.

    In addition, what is different now in college is that the percentage of state funds provided to campuses have drifted lower and lower and lower over the past 2 decades.

    Programs like the GI Bill, Land Granting funds, and the like built the greatest university systems in the world and also created the broadest level of education for any country in the world.

    It has been chipped away and it is being nearly destroyed as I write this.

  5. Want to see how America fares against the world in education. Go get the movie Two Million Minutes. 6 honor Roll students; 2 from India, 2 from China and 2 from the US. The Indians and the Chinese students kick our kids asses in every sense of the word. Parents, WAKE UP!!!!!

  6. …………………….
    kralmajales Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 2:38 pm
    “We are not producing the same quantity or quality of adaptable and inventive 18 year olds who signed up to fight World War II.”

    You have to be kidding right? Those were days when higher education was only affordable by the wealthy.
    Not at all. Dead serious. The literacy rate for American 18 years old at the outbreak of World War II was close to 90%.
    Today’s literacy is running an appalling 45%.
    The pre-WWII high school diploma was more comprehensive and a better foundation for trades or higher education than today’s diploma.
    Wonder why Patton called the American soldier the “finest soldier ever produced?” If a German truck broke down, the soldiers would get out and wait by the side of the road for the mechanic to be called to them. If an American truck broke down, the American soldiers would pile out, open it up and fix it, then pile back in and get on their way. Americans have never been “peasants” like many Europeans, they were used to mechanized farming on family-owned farms. American soliders modified their trucks and tanks, adapting, inventing as they encountered unforseen problems.
    Their schooling was what we call “the basics”. Our education system has SINCE been evicerated and replaced by “Progressive Left” education – propaganda, dumbing-down, developmental theories (Whole Language) insetad of skills (phonics). “facilitating” instead of “teaching” – “process” instead of “facts.” It is having a bad effect on our productivity, our attention to excellence and our creativity, and worse, our ability to continue learning.

    Overseas universities run two years to an equivalent US degree of four years – why? US colleges have to run students thru “distribution” courses that foreign schools consider to be what should have been taught in high school. They USED to be in the USA, but the dumbed-down curriculum graduated students with HS diplomas with ability, but not properly equipped for college level work. US colleges have had to prep with one to two years general work before advancing to the majors.
    So, even though many Americans did not go to college, they had High School diplomas that easily rival educations thru many an associate degree today, and gave them a foundation that they could build on thru job training and further study, either thru college or personal efforts.
    So American education fills more and more years of our lives, with less and less real education. It’s become confinement, not any sort of “enrichment.”

  7. wanumba – you can’t be serious. the US literacy rate today is 99% somewhat higher than the 96% in 1945.

  8. Todd, 99%? You must be high. Please back up that stat with some facts. As someone who has spent the last 7 years in the classrooms [at various schools] with my g-kids, I have seen firsthand what is being [or should I say NOT being] taught in our schools. Our school systems are an abysmal mess. More time and effort is put into “pajama day” then into silly things like teaching our children how do math or write legibly.

  9. pappatodd –
    Here are historical illiteracy rates in the US

    CIA World factbook lists US literacy at 99% and every other source I have found says the same.

  10. todd Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 11:48 pm
    wanumba – you can’t be serious. the US literacy rate today is 99% somewhat higher than the 96% in 1945.
    Functional illiteracy is the term, which I believe is defined as no higher than fourth grade competency. 45%.

    That would be a function of Whole Language instruction, which is not actual reading, but rote memorization of the printed word and guessing at unknown words.

    With Whole Language, Kids who seem to do very well in K-4 crash and burn in 5th – 6th -7th grades when suddenly faced with textbooks that don’t have pretty artsy pictures and repetitive drills, and with have lots and lots of words the kids never have memorized.

    For an example of a typical Whole Language “reader” which should be called, “rote drill,” look no farther than the trendy artsy “Brown Bear, Brown Bear What do you see?” It’s ubiquitous, along with it’s companion books by the same author, in public schools.

    “Progessive” Educators using the word “progressive” to infer to parents high achievement, but was actually “Progressive” referring to Left political ideology, called phonics instruction old fashioned and boring and presented Whole Language development theory of reading as the “progressive” new way. Public schools across the nation removed phonics and replaced it with Whole Language. That’s why the functional literacy rate went down so fast and so comprehensively.

    So the high-tech USA, modern society, with gazillions of dollars sunk into public education has a DECLINING functional literacy rate. Declining national scores on the SAT and ACT, to the point of redesigning the tests to HIDE THE DECLINE, declining number of American students taking the “hard sciences and maths” because they didn’t get the background skills in high schools, while foreign students with traditional skills once taught in US schools, snap up university slots.

    American Public Education is a disaster, the functional illiteracy rate is one proof of the decline. The drop out rate of first year college students is atrocious. They looked good on paper, but when real work hits, they don’t have the reading, writing and math skills needed to succeed. It’s a national disgrace. Their years and years in school were wasted by ineffective teaching theory.
    Confinement, not education.

    The newly bult local public school constructed in our town was designed by a prison architect. It looks like prison,and is one of the worst performers academically in the state of Arizona, which would make it amongst the worst in the entire nation.

    Millions on a building complex, but the curriculum not changed or the non-producing “facilitators.”

  11. wanumba – ok let’s look at functional illiteracy. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 14% of the population in 2003 was in this below basic or functionally illiterate category. Of these, 55% did not complete high school and 44% had not spoken English before starting school. There was no shift from the 1992 study of the same. Interestingly, older Americans tended to be less literate than younger Americans. Wanumba would have us believe functional literacy was higher in 1945, yet at that time less than half of the US population even completed 8th grade and in fact functional literacy has improved.

    Schools are designed like prisons, but this says more about us and the last 30 years of demonizing young people.

  12. Todd,
    If you have to go to google and look up sources like the “CIA Factbook” to lard your counter arguments with school data figures, what does that say about your grasp of the reality of the US school system?

    All theoretical. But you don’t want to hear about what people have to say who are dealing with it day to day, grade to grade, school to school, and seek to find anything you can to deny the reality of what’s going on in American education. What good does that do? Hide the decline. How is ANYONE well-served by denials?

    We have 6 kids. They have been in, let’s see:
    FIFTEEN different schools and two colleges.
    Of the FIFTEEN schools, FOUR are FRENCH schools, ELEVEN are US schools, of the ELEVEN US schools, SIX are public schools, one is a public charter school, and FOUR are private.

    To say that we spend a good chunk of our time dealing with schools of every shape and size, public and private, domestic and international is understating it. US public schools have been the absolutely worst performers, no actually, the American International Schools are worse because they offer piss-poor public school system curriculum and teachers at private school rates that USG Embassy employees get free, but private Americans have to pay for.
    The outrageous fees at the overseas Americans schools are what forced us into the French system in the first place.

  13. Hey Todd, You can choke on this stat. While you’re at it. AZ fell to 45 in national education. http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/01/19/20100119edqualitycounts0119.html

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