There has been much talk about Head Start and its effectiveness after President Obama recently proposed a comprehensive national plan for early childhood development. Opponents of the plan claim the National Head Start Impact Study (NHSIS), released in December 2012, shows that government investment in early childhood development is ineffective—a generalized conclusion that is neither thoughtful nor accurate.
Head Start is by no means perfect, but that should not rule out efforts to improve the program’s quality and surround it with other high-quality birth-to-five programs that will deliver better outcomes for children, families and society.
There were flaws in the NHSIS study. For example, many in the control group were allowed to attend other Head Start and preschool programs, thereby diminishing the gains found among the treatment group. The evaluation of positive effects are limited to the early school years while many studies have consistently shown that benefits become more evident in later school persistence and adult economic, health and social outcomes. In addition, the research was conducted before current quality improvement initiatives were put into place. Regardless of these flaws, the NHSIS study does provide a picture of the past and some insight into how we can shape a better future, especially if it is placed within the context of other evaluations and programs.
Head Start is by no means perfect, but that should not rule out efforts to improve the program’s quality and surround it with other high-quality birth-to-five programs that will deliver better outcomes for children, families and society. Now is not the time to throw away Head Start and abandon efforts to build comprehensive early childhood development programs in the United States. It is time to take solid evaluations of many programs and use the knowledge to create more effective early childhood programs.
The President’s early childhood plan presents this opportunity. As proposed, it seeks to build upon efforts to improve quality in and consistency across Head Start as well as other public and private services. The plan incorporates important existing and new investments in effective child development from birth to three, such as home visitation, Early Head Start and quality childcare. These programs combined with an improved Head Start and higher quality private preschool programs are more likely to produce better education, health and economic outcomes for disadvantaged children and society than Head Start alone.
We can move forward with confidence, provided our public and private investments in early childhood development are guided by solid evidence, not uninformed advocacy. Certainly, the evidence is strong enough to act and act wisely. The time is now.