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Carcieri thinks Head Start is a waste of money

Governor Carcieri entered a long-running debate about the value of the early-education program Head Start this week. Here's what he said in a story yesterday by the ProJo's Steve Peoples:

“Show me empirical evidence that Head Start has done anything,” he said. “I think it’s been the biggest waste of money, frankly.”

I took a quick look via Google to seek indications of Head Start's impact. There are a lot of positive reviews, but also some more critical ones. At minimum, considering the research, the governor engaged in a rhetorical over-reach. (The US Department of Health and Human Services has a detailed look at the research here.)

Here's one of the positive reviews that I found:

The Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) is a longitudinal study, meaning the same group of children (cohort) is folowed over several years. FACES provides key findings related to children’s outcomes and program quality. FACES proves Head Start’s ability to help narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and other children in the areas of education and social behavior. According to the survey, most children entering Head Start had early academic skills that were below national norms. However, by the end of the program, Head Start children showed gains in vocabulary, early math, writing skills, and other literacy-related areas. Head Start children also showed growth in their social skills which better prepares them for cooperative classroom learning.

Not only has Head Start proven to help children early in their schooling, it also has an effect on their later schooling as well. According to an issue brief (pdf) drafted by the National Head Start Association, “Reliable studies have found that Head Start children have increased achievement test scores and that they experience favorable long-term effects on grade repetition, special education, and graduation rates.”

Here's another:

A recent rigorous national evaluation of the impact of Head Start on three- and four-year-olds, the Head Start Impact Study, found gains for Head Start children in pre-reading, pre-writing, vocabulary and literacy skills.1 Children assigned to participate in Head Start also had fewer behavior problems, better overall physical health, less hyperactivity, and more access to dental care. More positive effects were found for children who entered the program as three-year olds than as four-year olds.2 Another study found that four-year olds participating in Head Start did better in receptive language and phonemic awareness than four-year olds of similar backgrounds who were wait-listed for the Head Start program.3 Other studies find that children who attended Head Start are more likely to stay in school, and have lower rates of grade retention in early elementary school.4 Head Start participants were also more likely to have been fully immunized5 and to have better access to health care.6

Head Start programs may also have benefits for the parents of the children attending. In comparison to a group of families with similar backgrounds, parents of children attending such programs are more likely to report good health and safety practices than are parents of children not attending.7 First-year findings from the National Head Start Impact study also found that parents of children attending Head Start were more likely to read to their children frequently, less likely to use physical punishment, and more likely to engage in educational activities with their children. However, in this study, parents were not significantly more likely to use better safety practices.8

The Heritage Foundation says this:

Since its inception, there has been controversy over Head Start's effectiveness. Early research from the Westinghouse Learning Corporation in 1969 showed cognitive gains of the program's participants faded away within a few grades, at which point the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants are indistinguishable from their nonparticipating peers.

In 1985, the Head Start Synthesis Project, a meta-analysis of over 210 studies and reports, found:

Children enrolled in Head Start enjoy significant, immediate gains in cognitive test scores, socioemotional test scores, and health status. In the long run, cognitive and socio-emotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start.

A few studies indicated that Head Start participants were less likely to be enrolled in special education or to be held back a grade. Head Start students also received more dental and health screenings.

The Goldwater Institute says:

[T]he Head Start Impact Study—in which children who attended the program are being compared with those who did not—began in 2002 and is continuing. Its control group is made up of children who could not get into the program because all the slots were filled after a lottery, explained Nicholas Zill, the director of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat, a Rockville, Md.-based research organization.

Initial results released in 2005 showed “modest” gains for the Head Start children in pre-reading, pre-writing, and vocabulary skills. But improvements were not found in oral-comprehension or math skills. Results after the children’s kindergarten year are being analyzed and will be released later this year.

Officials with the Bush administration noted that the preliminary findings showed that children in the program still lag behind their peers, while Head Start advocates used the results to boast that the children are making progress.

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