When the Government Fails Completely

article top
Graphic by Emily Metcalf

What happens when a government program simply does not do what it is supposed to do?

Head Start, the federal preschool program, says it “promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.” But the government’s own evaluations have shown that it just does not do this.


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released its latest findings of a long study that followed Head Start kids all the way to third grade.

The findings: “by third grade, the $8 billion Head Start program had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of participants. On a few measures, access to Head Start had harmful effects on children.”

Heritage’s Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education, and research fellow David Muhlhausen note in their new assessment of the study that the government finished collecting the data in 2008—and then waited four years before releasing the study on the Friday before Christmas 2012. That tells you how much the people in charge wanted you to know about Head Start’s effectiveness.

The third-grade study results are similar to a first-grade study conducted by HHS in 2010, which found that any benefits of participating in the program completely disappeared by the first grade.

What is Head Start? It’s much more than learning your ABCs. From the program’s website:

Head Start programs provide comprehensive services to enrolled children and their families, which include health, nutrition, social services and other services determined to be necessary by family needs assessments, in addition to education and cognitive development services. Head Start services are designed to be responsive to each child and family’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage.

The information states that “Programs may be based in: Centers or schools that children attend for part-day or full-day services; Family child care homes; or Children’s own homes, where a staff person visits once a week to provide services to the child and families.”

This broad description of services should have you seeing dollar signs. Since 1965 – when Head Start was founded as a small summer program – taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on it. Fraud has also been uncovered in the program, yet it continued. Most recently, lawmakers added millions in Head Start funding to the Hurricane Sandy relief package.

So it is stunning to find that all this money has been spent for little to no benefit to the children and families it was supposed to help.

The third-grade study found that access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effects on all measures of cognitive ability, including numerous measures of reading, language, and math ability.

As Burke and Muhlhausen sum it up:

HHS has released definitive evidence that the federal government’s 48-year experiment with Head Start has failed children and left taxpayers a tab of more than $180 billion. In the interest of children and taxpayers, it’s time for this nearly half-century experiment to come to an end.