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Evaluating Head Start

When Head Start began in 1965, its purpose was to prepare low-income children for school by developing their social, emotional and physical skills. Although math and reading readiness was a focus, Head Start was never intended to be primarily academic.

This mission is important to bear in mind now because the Obama administration has identified 132 Head Start programs out of the approximately 1,600 across the country as deficient, meaning that they will be required to reapply for their share of $7.6 billion in federal funding ("Head Start Faces a New Test," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 27). Under new guidelines spelling out seven criteria for renewal of grants, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that nearly 44 percent of existing Head Start programs could ultimately find themselves on the endangered list. (Head Start is overseen by HHS rather than by the Department of Education because it was part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.)

Taxpayers are entitled to know if their money is being well spent. The debate is over the best way to make that determination. If standardized tests are used, then Head Start programs will be subjected to the same pressures as other classes. To avoid that likelihood, the National Head Start Association wants to raise teacher qualifications as set forth in the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007. But therein lies a major problem: Even the best teachers by themselves cannot completely overcome the deficits that too many poor children bring to the program. That's why it's not surprising that Head Start's academic benefits largely fade by the time children begin elementary school. The uneven quality of its programs also exacerbates matters.

Nevertheless, I think it would be a big mistake to dismiss the value of Head Start out of hand. Although early intervention for disadvantaged children cannot perform miracles, it can produce benefits. For example, the Perry Preschool Program, which launched in 1962 with 123 poor Ypsilanti preschoolers, did not post higher test scores than the control group. However, those in the treatment group at age 40 were far more successful in terms of schooling, employment and lawfulness. All the more reason to improve underperforming Head Start programs rather than close them down.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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