- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A “sacred cow” refers to something that is so highly regarded that it is beyond criticism.

The $7 billion-a-year Head Start program for low-income preschoolers seems to fit that description.

Why? A rigorous, national study has found that by the time Head Start children finish first grade, they score virtually the same on cognitive, socioemotional, health and parent-child interaction measures as poor children who didnt attend Head Start.

In other words, when it comes to delivering measurable, lasting outcomes, Head Start is more hype than help.

One would think the Obama administration and Congress would take a long, sober look at Head Start; These are damning findings for a program that has been “tweaked” for 45 years at a cumulative cost of some $167 billion.

But instead, the Washington response is to add another $1 billion to the 2011 Head Start budget.

Not surprisingly, the Heritage Foundation is apoplectic.

The conservative think tank held a March 22 event called “Is Head Start Helping Children Succeed and Does Anyone Care?” Nick Zill, a researcher associated with earlier Head Start studies, answered that question with a presentation called “I Know Head Start Works. Don’t Confuse Me With The Facts.”

Initially, the federal governments massive Head Start Impact Study showed that children ages 3 and 4 were better prepared for school after attending Head Start than poor children who didnt go to Head Start.

Those results, released in 2005, were ballyhooed as new evidence that Head Start works.

But the $167 billion question has always been: Do these advantages last?

The final report from the Head Start Impact Study, which involved almost 5,000 poor children in 23 states and took more than a decade to create and compile, answered that question in January.

It found that by the end of first grade, Head Start students performed no better than non-Head Start students on almost all of the 112 measured outcomes. (There were positive impacts in three categories for 4-year-olds, and in five categories for 3-year-olds.)

In light of this virtual fade-out of the federal governments flagship preschool program, what should happen next?

Clearly, some gains were made with Head Start, but “we cant just turn a blind eye and … fund them and let them go,” said Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.

Preschool has to be more than safety, naps and snacks, she said. There has to be high-quality instruction, for instance: Teachers who have high language skills themselves can easily introduce complex words and sentences to young children.

The New America Foundation advocates a new, “seamless,” educational system that runs from preschool to third grade, said Ms. Guernsey. Currently, there is a “nonsensical break” dividing preschool and elementary school. Because educators arent always on the same team, children end up being taught the same things in kindergarten that they learned in preschool, she said.

“Theres a lot that can be done to reform” early-childhood education, and “I do think there are lots of people ready to have, hopefully, different and transforming conversations about these things,” Ms. Guernsey added.

I don’t know what to do about Head Start, but I have two observations.

One, this country spends an astronomical amount on public education, so it’s not like we don’t care about educating the kids. But all the brilliant teachers, great books, fun games and nifty posters can’t make up for millions of fatherless homes and crazy-quilt families. More should be done to support stable, married, two-parent homes, especially in poor neighborhoods.

Second, abstinence education, which once received roughly $200 million a year — chump change by Head Start standards — has been pilloried and is now greatly reduced (to $50 million a year) because some studies claimed it “didn’t work.”

Where are all those “we-must-follow-the-research” program police when it comes to Head Start? Spinning around a sacred cow, perhaps?

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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