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Head Start launched 50 years ago today. It transformed how we think about early education.

May 18, 2015

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson stood in the White House Rose Garden to announce a new program that would change the lives of millions of America's children. At the time, he called it "Project Head Start." 

"I believe that this is one of the most constructive, and one of the most sensible, and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken," Johnson said of Head Start that morning. 

In the half-century since the announcement, millions of kids, and families, have received services through Head Start. The current annual cost of the program is nearing $10 billion. And yet there's huge disagreement even today about what Head Start has accomplished, or even should accomplish as its mission.

In our radio documentary on early education in 2013, we went deep into the history of Head Start to try to look at its legacy. You can hear an excerpt from that documentary here: 

In a separate story, we went further to examine the research into Head Start's effectiveness. And, it turns out, one of the biggest studies of Head Start has a huge design flaw that gets totally overlooked when most people talk about the program. This flaw doesn't make the study irrelevant or wrong. But it does mean we have to be careful about how we interpret the results. Tim Bartik, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, is the first one who pointed out this issue to me. Here's what I wrote for our story in 2013:

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.

When Head Start launched in 1965, there were almost no options for young children to attend preschool in America. Early organizers of the program talked about reaching kids who had never even seen a pencil, let alone knew how to write their name. 

Now, one of the biggest problems in assessing the effectiveness in Head Start is that you can't even get a decent control group for an experimental study. Most of the kids who you try to exclude from the Head Start group will end up in another preschool program. 

If nothing else, that is the legacy of Head Start. It transformed America not just through the millions of kids who attended Head Start classes, but also through the millions more who benefited from the idea that began with Head Start: the idea that all kids deserve an early start on their education.