In his commentary "Are federal social programs working? No one knows." in the Aug. 15 & 22 issue, David Muhlhausen is correct to call for the federal government to conduct large-scale, multisite, experimental evaluations to ensure that social programs are benefiting the community. Where Mr. Muhlhausen goes wrong is in citing Head Start as a program that is not working and using the flawed 2010 Head Start Impact Study to make his case.
In Defense of Head Start
Long-term studies of Head Start reach a clear conclusion: It delivers children who are ready for school and who grow into successful adults. Head Start students graduate from high school, go to college, and get jobs at higher rates than their at-risk peers who do not experience early childhood education. Head Start graduates are also more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and less likely to commit crimes.
The cognitive test scores on which Muhlhausen's critique is focused represent less than half the equation for future success. As Nobel laureate economist James Heckman has demonstrated, social-emotional skills learned in the earliest years are more predictive of educational and employment outcomes. These "executive function" skills don't fade out and they allow children to be successful not only as third-graders and 11th-graders, but also as em-ployees and citizens. By design, these are the skills, along with learning their ABCs and 123s, that Head Start provides children.
We wholeheartedly agree that taxpayer dollars should be directed toward the most effective programs. Head Start agrees, too, and has instituted sweeping changes to improve the efficiency and rigor of the program as part of its 2007 reauthorization. The Department of Health and Human Services plans to improve quality through higher credentials for Head Start instructors and by implementing a uniform, rigorous assessment of classroom quality. Furthermore, in a shift toward more accountability and consequences for low performance, Head Start grantees will have to compete for continued funding.
In tough economic times, we must invest in programs that produce a solid return on investment. Rather than throw out the baby with the bath water, we need to continue to improve programs like Head Start and Early Head Start that have a demonstrated track record of effectiveness, not cut them on the basis of past inefficiencies or incomplete research.
Executive director, First Five Years Fund,
Sep 21, 2011