STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Head Start is not a failure

Dustin Dwyer

 The debate over federal spending cuts has made Head Start a major topic of conversation in Washington. Leaders from both parties have been warning that tens of thousands of kids will lose a chance at Head Start’s preschool program, if the across the board spending cuts are allowed to happen.

But to some critics, cutting Head Start would be a good thing. To them, the program is a failure, and not worth the money. 

To analyze the argument, first let’s meet someone who actually goes to Head Start.

Sylus Sims is 4 years old. He goes to South Godwin Head Start, just outside of Grand Rapids. On Wednesdays, his dad rides the bus with him and helps kids into the school.

And then, Sylus learns things.

"I know how to say milk in Spanish," he says proudly in his classroom. "Leche!"

Every year about 900,000 kidsgo through some kind of Head Start program. To be eligible, a family must be at or below the federal poverty level – which is less than $24,000 per year for a family of four.

Kids in this group are more likely to be behind in learning – that’s the whole reason Head Start exists.

But it also means Head Start classrooms are a challenging place to teach.

"At times, you wonder, 'Are they getting what I’m saying?'" says Nicole Timmons, the teacher's assistant in Sylus' class. "You’re so busy just trying to get them to sit, you’re like, 'I hope they’re learning something. But they are.'"

Timmons knows they’re learning because every kid who goes through Head Start is closely tracked to see how their development is going.

And the research has shown that kids who go to Head Start are better prepared when they enter kindergarten.

It’s what happens in the next few years that draws the criticism.

The agency responsible for Head Start ran a large-scale study on its effectiveness. And the study found that by third grade, the kids who went through Head Start were not much different than kids in the study’s control group.  

These results are the reason you hear people say that Head Start is a failure and a waste of money.

People like conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, heard last week on Fox News.

"Now we have had Head Start for 48 years," he said on the Hannity show. "We know an awful lot about how effective it is. And the evidence is in: it doesn’t work. It produces no measurable change in the education levels of kids. If you can’t cut Head Start, you’re not serious about cutting anything, period."

But it’s not just conservatives who are claiming that Head Start is failing kids. The idea has been repeated over and over in the past few weeks.

The problem is, many people are reading the Head Start research wrong.

"When people say that – and you hear people say this, that the recent Head Start experiment shows that preschool doesn’t work, well, one I don’t think it shows that, says Tim Bartik, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for employment research in Kalamazoo.

"First of all, Head Start is not all of preschool," he says. "Secondly, I don’t think it shows that even Head Start doesn’t work. There’s other research on Head Start than this experiment. Third, it doesn’t show that Head Start couldn’t be more effective."

In fact, there have already been some major reforms to Head Start, and their effects were not measured in the Head Start study.  

Bartik says another problem with how the Head Start Impact study has been interpreted is that most of the kids in the control group for the study also went to some kind of preschool.

Imagine we were talking about a study of a prescription drug. Half the people in the study got the drug. Half didn’t. But then 60 percent of those who didn’t, found a way to get a similar drug.  If everyone turned out the same, we wouldn’t say the original drug was a failure. We’d just say it wasn’t any better than the other drugs on the market.

And that’s what happened in the Head Start study. Kids in the control group went on to different preschool, some of them reapplied to a different Head Start program.

That means Head Start is not a failure. Neither is it a huge success. It’s mostly just like other preschool options for low-income kids.

Which means if Head Start funding is cut, the research suggests kids will fall behind – unless they can find some other preschool.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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