by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Unlike the Obama administration, TIME columnist Fareed Zakaria isn’t trying to hide the results of a government study documenting the lack of long-term benefits associated with Head Start. Rather than hide the results, Zakaria simply downplays them in praising Obama’s plea for more federal taxpayer-funded early education.
Some of the criticism of Obama’s program has come from the usual ideological opponents, though this is a program squarely aimed at creating greater equality of opportunity, not outcome. Other critics share his goals but worry about the government’s track record in the area. Specifically, they point to Head Start, the long-standing program that provides early education to disadvantaged children. The Department of Health and Human Services released a study of Head Start in 2010, updated in 2012, that concludes that the program’s positive effects begin to fade within a few years. This has led many to call it a failure and urge the government not to throw good money after bad.
But critics are jumping to conclusions about a very complicated subject without really understanding the study–or the limitations of social-science research. In a June 2012 paper, three scholars from the University of Chicago and University of California, Davis, painstakingly explained why it is premature to reject Head Start. They note that many factors may have intervened to erode the early gains in scores, including sharp rises in single-parent families, non-English-speaking households and severe health problems like childhood obesity and diabetes. They also noted that early education in public schools has been getting better, a trend that might explain why Head Start kids lose their advantage over non–Head Start kids. Most important, some studies show that though their test scores level out, children who have been through early education do better in their professional lives.
Perhaps Zakaria might benefit from reading Terry Stoops’ reaction to the Head Start study.