Opinion: Daily Journal

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Hide The Evidence

What were you doing the Friday before Christmas? Many of us were buying last-minute gifts, embarking on trips to visit family and friends, or making other preparations for the holiday season.

But if you were a senior official working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you were releasing one of the most important, and damning, studies of the Head Start preschool program to date, the “Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study.”

Why would HHS choose to release an important report the Friday before Christmas? Call me cynical, but I think it had something to do with the unwelcome (for HHS) but largely predictable conclusion of the report. Researchers concluded that Head Start, an $8 billion program that enrolls approximately 21,000 low-income children in North Carolina and 1 million nationwide, delivered almost no lasting benefits to participating children.

Head Start, nicknamed Project Rush-Rush, was one of the signature initiatives of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. It was the federal government’s first and largest foray into early childhood education and services. Since its introduction in 1965, Congress has poured approximately $123 billion into Head Start programs for nearly 30 million low-income children.

Apparently, there was no rush-rush to release the Head Start Impact Study. Researchers completed data collection in 2008, and it took two years for HHS to release its initial findings. The 2010 report concluded that the average preschooler enrolled in Head Start did not maintain academic and social gains through first grade.

By early 2012, HHS continued to sit on a follow-up report that tracked Head Start children through third grade. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and four of his colleagues sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanding the release of the follow-up report. The agency released it — Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.

The Head Start Impact Study was rigorous, to say the least. Over a six-year period, researchers randomly assigned 5,000 newly entering 3- and 4-year-old children to Head Start and non-Head Start programs through their third-grade year. Random assignment, also called experimental design, is the unequivocal “gold standard” in social science research.

Researchers examined several developmental areas, including measures of cognitive, social-emotional, language and literacy, and health outcomes. They found that Head Start improved the preschool experience of participating children, but the program provided few benefits beyond kindergarten.

Researchers concluded, “[T]here was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” Head Start Director Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes issued the classic Orwellian response: “Children who entered the program 10 years ago clearly benefited from their Head Start experience.”

Proponents of preschool programs like Head Start argue that “investments” in early learning provide long-term benefits to children, families, and the community. Preschool advocates contend that spending a dollar on early intervention programs will save several dollars down the road. They maintain that those who receive state-subsidized preschool education and services will require less remediation in school, commit fewer crimes, and have higher salaries than those who do not.

There is some evidence this is true for a small number of destitute children in high-quality preschool programs. But these children are the exception, not the rule.

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, LBJ’s ideological successor, Barack Obama, declared that his administration will try to “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” Indeed, just seven weeks after HHS surreptitiously published a study that largely invalidated Head Start, President Obama recommended pouring additional billions of dollars into programs like Head Start.

What word did Albert Einstein define as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Was the word “insanity” or was it “liberalism”? I often confuse the two.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies for the John Locke Foundation.