In a November address to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about doing a better job of working with Health and Human Services to ensure successful early education reform. Duncan stated, "If we are going to do what works - and abandon what doesn't - early learning systems need to document, assess and adapt more readily." If Duncan is serious about doing what works and abandoning what doesn't, he should be interested in the long-overdue findings of the government's largest early education initiative - the federal Head Start program.
This shouldn't be a problem for the education secretary, who in the same speech lauded the new "willing partnership" between his Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services managed by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But does this new partnership mean that Duncan has all of the information he needs to implement meaningful early education reform?
Is Secretary Duncan aware that a crucial, federally-mandated evaluation of the Head Start program is long overdue?
With the Obama administration on the verge of one of the biggest expansions of the federal government's role in early childhood education since the creation of Head Start in 1965, it would seem an evaluation of the annual $7 billion preschool program would be relevant for the President's decision to dramatically increase early childhood spending.
In 1998, Congress mandated an evaluation of the program, which was completed in 2005. The 2005 evaluation showed some gains for Head Start participants, but provided no information on the program's long-term impact. To answer that question, data was collected on cohorts of first- and third-grade students who had been through the program as preschoolers. First-grade data collection was completed in 2006 and third-grade data collection was due out in March of 2009. Neither the first- nor third-grade data has been made public.
As Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation explained, former HHS officials say they were briefed on the first grade data, and that children in Head Start seem to have experienced no lasting benefits by the end of first grade. Taxpayers should hope for some positive evidence from a program that has cost them more than $100 billion since its inception. At more than $7,000 per child, Head Start is starting to look like little more than an expensive baby sitter.
The administration has already spent $5 billion on early education and care programs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and an $8 billion "Early Learning Challenge Fund" was included in a higher education bill that has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. These expenditures are in addition to the estimated $25 billion spent annually by the federal government on 69 early childhood education and care programs.
Despite the money taxpayers have already spent on myriad federal early education programs, President Obama wants to continue the preschool push. With all the current funding and additional billions about to be spent, taxpayers deserve to know whether the federal government has been an effective player in the preschool market.
Proponents of increased federal involvement in early childhood education tend to promise that preschool will solve all of society's ills. Improved school readiness, increased graduation rates, reduced crime and even reduced teen pregnancy and smoking. Most of these assertions are based on limited data from the 1960s, from groups of children not representative of the nation's four-year-olds as a whole. If Secretary Duncan wants to drive his early education policy with informed decisions -- with evidence of "what works" -- he should request the release of the HHS study.
Lindsey Burke is a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation.