Investing In and Invigorating Head Start

By |

Head Start is a good start to revitalizing national education but there is still room for improvement. 

Head Start is a 8 billion dollar federal grant program that provides preschool and other early childhood learning opportunities to about 1 million 3 and 4-year-old children that meet federal poverty guidelines.  When Head Start was first created, as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, the program was designed to help improve the child development and developmental needs of disadvantaged children.

While Head Start has grown slowly since its inception in the 1960s, critics have never been far behind to challenge the programs successes and budget.  Most recently, TIME’s Joe Klein challenged Head Start as a failing to “yield results” and called for the end of the program.  Klein opined that because some studies show that children in Head Start do not see sustained academic and developmental growth after they have finished the program, that the program itself was a failure and a waste of money.  Klein raises some interesting points. First, is $8 billion a year for poor preschoolers a valuable use of the federal government’s money?  Second, does Head Start actually improve academic outcomes long-term? And finally, is there a way to improve the Head Start program or should it just be scrapped as wasteful government spending?

First, is the federal government justified in spending $8 billion a year on preschool education for American’s poorest children?

America provides a system of free public education, usually Kindergarten through Grade 12.  However, most young children often attend a series of private preschool programs before starting Kindergarten.  In contrast, most European countries provide about 2 years of pre-school or early childhood development programs for all young children before the kids begin primary school.  Instead, in America, mostly all preschools are privately run, with average costs of about $3,000 – $12,000 per child per year. 

America does provide limited subsidized preschools at the state and federal levels, usually based on poverty level, and Head Start is one of these programs. But, Head Start only serves about 1 million children a year and in 2010, there were 6.3 million children in poverty.  So maybe the question is not whether the federal government is justified in spending $8 billion a year on preschool programs for poor children, but whether $8 billion is enough to serve the needs of these children.  With potentially 5.3 million children going without adequate access to preschool services every year, it is clear that America’s early childhood education programs benefit those that have the means to access these private programs and harm those without similar access.

But, America is in a recession and the federal government is struggling to allocate money for even well supported government programs, like subsidized student loans.  Before one advocates for expanding a program such as Head Start, it is important to ensure that the program actually works.  This leads to the second question, is Head Start achieving educational and development success among the children it serves?

Head Start’s successes in early childhood development and long-term academic and social outcomes for poor children are disputed.  While there are some studies that highlight the successes of Head Start in terms of keeping people out of prison and leading to higher education rates, other studies, like the Head Start Impact Study show only minimal long-term effects.

Still, many of these minimal long-term effects can be attributed to the weak schools that Head Start graduates will attend upon program completion.  Faced with failing schools, a lack of resources, overcrowded classrooms, and even bad teachers, it is of no surprise that the students targeted for Head Start programs cannot maintain their academic improvements over time because the odds are simply against them.

It’s clear that America has many poor children who go without access to quality preschool programs due to their poverty level and the limited reach of the Head Start program.  Further, poor children who do have access to Head Start often do not see sustained academic outcomes throughout their time in public education. Maybe the true issue is that early childhood education through Head Start is only one part of the process to improve educational and life outcomes for poor children in the United States.  This leads into the third question, can Head Start be improved to ensure effective program performance and long-term benefits or should the program just be scrapped?

Obviously, Head Start should not be scrapped unless the federal government and the states figure out a better way to provide access to high-quality preschool programs for our nation’s poorest preschoolers.  There are too many preschoolers in this country who go without access to early childhood development programs, and while Head Start is just one option, it’s an option that is helping 1 million of these preschoolers.

Still, as with any government program, it is necessary to ensure that federal money is being spent correctly.  In 2007, Congress passed “Improving Head Start for School Readiness,” an act that allows the government to take a stronger federal oversight role of Head Start programs and requires teachers in Head Start programs to hold associates and bachelors degrees.  The Obama Administration has already used its power under this bill to close unsuccessful Head Start programs and provide more funding for programs that were succeeding.  To ensure that federal money is being spent correctly and that children are receiving high-quality preschool education, it is essential that federal oversight of Head Start programs continue.

Finally, the federal government should work to expand access to free and reduced preschool programs for poor children.  Preschool has a profound impact on the educational attainment and development of children.  Further, because most middle-class children have the ability to attend preschool, expanding access to preschool programs for poor children could help close socioeconomic achievement gaps.  Most importantly though, gains made in preschool need to be sustained overtime through strong primary and secondary public education for all students.  American needs to work towards improving its K-12 educational opportunities for all students to ensure that all children have access to high quality education from preschool to college.


Amy Baral is a Roosevelt Institute Pipeline Fellow.