Reevaluating Head Start

Policymakers across the political spectrum are turning to the expansion of early childhood education as a potential solution to low economic mobility and slow growth within the United States. Research broadly demonstrates that a good pre-Kindergarten experience can raise academic achievement and help close educational gaps that appear even before a child ever enters a Kindergarten classroom. Yet proponents of investing more in pre-K programs have had to contend with other research arguing that Head Start, the federal preschool program created in the 1960s, isn’t as effective as proponents would hope. A new paper, however, shows that once one factors indifferences in children’s care arrangements prior to entering Head Start, the long-term returns on investment are higher than previously believed.

Economists Patrick Kline and Christopher Walters of the University of California-Berkeley reevaluate Head Start in light of findings from the Head Start Impact Study, known as HSIS. This study initially found that some of the positive effects of Head Start (mostly improvements in test scores) were short-lived, eventually fading away over time, and that the rate return on the program was quite low. The key insights by Kline and Walters is that the rate of return on the early childhood educational investments depends on whether these very young children were cared for at home, or were enrolled in other preschool programs. The two authors find that the differences in the costs and benefits of the program for these different groups of children lead to a different evaluation of Head Start.

First, there are the costs of the program. If all the children were entering into Head Start directly from home care, then the cost of each additional child would be the full cost of the program. But not all children move directly from the home into Head Start; many shift from other forms of pre-school, such as programs run by state governments in Oklahoma. About 23 percent of the children in Head Start children in the data Kline and Walters use are moving from these kinds of preschools. Importantly, many of these programs are also subsidized by the government and are more expensive than Head Start for the government. Shifting these children into Head Start saves the government money, and the savings are quite large. If the shifting isn’t accounted for, then it appears that the program about breaks even. But once figured in, the benefits are twice as large as the costs.

On the benefits side, Kline and Walters show that the differences in childcare before pre-Head Start also matter. The positive effects are much higher for children who previously were in home care. The economists also show that the children most likely to get most benefits from Head Start are the least likely to enroll in the program. In other words, expanding the program to a wider group of children would increase the benefits and the rate of return, assuming the increase in costs isn’t too large.

Does looking at Head Start in this new, more positive light mean that the program is sufficient or fine as is? Certainly not. Previous research by Walters finds that the variation in the effects of Head Start depends upon the specific center, and that those variation among the center is quite large. So there is certainly room for improvement. Yet this new research, if it holds up, means that the concerns about the infeasibility of mass early childhood education should be tempered. Figuring out how to creating a truly universal, high-quality program will take quite a bit of work, but we shouldn’t scrap or disregard what appears to be an effective program already in place.

June 24, 2015


Childcare & Early Education

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