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‘Head Start’: The $166 Billion Fed Ed Failure

It's time for President Obama to prove that he will “eliminate programs that don’t work” — and not let the ones that do work die.

by
Andrew J. Coulson

Bio

January 22, 2010 - 12:03 am
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“Head Start,” the flagship pre-kindergarten program introduced in 1965, has been a $166 billion failure. That’s the upshot of a sophisticated multi-year study just released by the Department of Health and Human Services.

An earlier iteration of the study, published in 2005, had found a few modest improvements in the language skills of participating students while they were enrolled in the program. But by the end of the first grade, even those few effects have disappeared, according to the follow-up released this month. Out of 44 separate cognitive tests given to former Head Start students at the end of the first grade, only two showed even marginally significant effects. The other 42 showed no statistically significant effect at all.

But even that overstates the case for Head Start. That’s because, on each of the 44 separate tests, there is a 1 in 10 chance of a false positive: a test result that appears to show a positive impact but is really just a random fluke. With so many test results, we’d expect to see at least a few false positives. Statisticians have ways to control for this problem, and when the authors themselves applied such a control, they found that the two apparently “significant” effects vanished.

What’s more, this applies to all the non-cognitive tests administered to students as well. After controlling for the likelihood of false positives, the study’s authors found no “socio-emotional” benefits and no “parenting practice” benefits either. No benefits to Head Start of any kind at the end of first grade. None.

Why is this important? Because $166 billion has been squandered on this program over the past half century, and the Obama administration is wasting even more, even faster. The president already increased annual spending on Head Start by more than a third last year, from $6.8 billion to $9.2 billion. He has made clear he does not intend to stop there.

But if the president were true to his own rhetoric, he would immediately reverse course. At least six times since the fall of 2008, President Obama has said: “We’ve got to eliminate programs that don’t work, and we’ve got to make sure that the programs that we do have are more efficient and cost less.” Well, Mr. President, your own Department of Health and Human Services has demonstrated that Head Start does not work.

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