Since 1965, the federal Head Start program has served more than 15 million children at a total cost of over $30 billion. Its general purpose is to provide comprehensive health, social, educational, and mental health services to disadvantaged students to help these children get a "head start" in life, excel academically, and eventually break out of the cycle of poverty.
The Clinton Administration has asked Congress to increase funding for the program--from $4.4 billion in fiscal year (FY) 1998 to $4.7 billion in FY 1999--to raise the total number of children served annually to approximately 860,000. Yet, remarkably, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), the early childhood development program operates without any valid, useful study of how well it works.
According to an April 1997 GAO report, "Head Start: Research Provides Little Information on Impact of Current Program," hardly any useful research is available to evaluate Head Start. In fact, the vast majority of research, including that cited as proof of the program's effectiveness by Head Start, is methodologically suspect or antiquated. The GAO report states,
The most reliable way to determine program impact is to compare a group of Head Start participants with an equivalent group of non-participants.... Only one of the [approximately 600] studies we reviewed used random assignment to form the Head Start and non-Head Start comparison groups.
Head Start's planned research will provide little information about the impact of regular Head Start programs because it focuses on descriptive studies; studies of program variations, involving new and innovative service delivery strategies and demonstration projects; and studies of program quality. Although these types of studies are useful in evaluating programs, they do not provide the impact information needed in today's results- oriented environment.
The GAO argues that national research on the impact of Head Start is a worthy and attainable goal, and that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Head Start's parent agency, should conduct it.
While we acknowledge the difficulties of conducting impact studies of programs such as Head Start, research could be done that would allow the Congress and HHS officials to know with more certainty whether the $4 billion dollar federal investment in Head Start is making a difference. For this reason, we recommend that the Secretary of HHS include in HHS' research plan an assessment of the impact of regular Head Start programs. (Emphasis added.)
In its five-year strategic plan, submitted to Congress on September 30, 1997, in response to the Government Performance and Results Act, however, HHS is unable to describe precisely what Head Start is supposed to accomplish. Worse, HHS's FY 1999 annual performance plan, prepared in response to Congress's demand that agencies link measures of performance directly with their annual requests for funding, makes no mention of what parents and taxpayers reasonably might expect in return for the $4.7 billion the Clinton Administration is asking them to give to Head Start.
Before Congress agrees once again to increase the funding for the Head Start program, it must make a top priority of determining whether the program actually works. It should make sure, as part of the FY 1999 appropriations for the Head Start program, that HHS is required to initiate an evaluation. Congress must send a clear message to HHS that future funding will be impossible to justify absent a serious effort to determine the answer to a simple question: "Does Head Start work?"
-- Patrick F. Fagan is William H. G. FitzGerald Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at The Heritage Foundation.