Don’t Ask if Head Start “Works” – That’s Not the Right Question

Head Start is an $8.5 billion federal program, which means everyone loves asking if it “works.” But that’s a useless question.

We know Head Start produces positive outcomes. There’s a substantial body of evidence showing that Head Start improves children’s learning at school entry. Other research shows that Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school and have better adult outcomes than children who did not. And a growing body of research shows that high-quality preschool programs can produce long-lasting gains in children’s school and life outcomes.

But critics of Head Start cite the same studies I just did to make the opposite argument. They have valid points. Not every Head Start program is high quality, for example, so some programs don’t produce these positive gains for students. And the Head Start Impact Study showed that Head Start’s positive effect on test scores fades as children enter the elementary grades.

Both critics and proponents of Head Start are right – which is why the “Does it work?” question is so useless. We already know the answer, and it’s not a clean yes or no. Taken all together, the available evidence shows that Head Start is a valuable program that can get better. Given, instead of asking if Head Start works, we should be asking a better question: How can policymakers and practitioners make Head Start better for children and families?

That’s the question Sara Mead and I – along with Results for America, the Volcker Alliance, and the National Head Start Association – try to answer in our new report, Moneyball for Head Start. We worked with these organizations to develop a vision for improving Head Start outcomes through data, evidence, and evaluation.

Specifically, we call on local grantees, federal policymakers, the research community, and the philanthropic sector to reimagine Head Start’s continuous improvement efforts.

Local grantees: All Head Start grantees need systems of data collection and analysis that support data-informed, evidence-based continuous improvement, leading to better results for children and families.

Federal oversight: The Office of Head Start (OHS), within the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, needs a stronger accountability and performance measurement system. This would allows federal officials to identify and disseminate effective practices of high-performing grantees, identify and intervene in low-performing grantees, and support continuous improvement across Head Start as a whole.

Research and evaluation: Federal policymakers and the philanthropic sector need to support research that builds the knowledge base of what works in Head Start and informs changes in program design and policies. This will require increasing funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation from less than 0.25 percent of total federal appropriations to 1 percent, and those funds should focus on research that builds knowledge to help grantees improve their quality and outcomes.

Philanthropy and the private sector: The philanthropic sector, universities and other research institutions, and the private sector should help build grantee capacity and support the development, evaluation, and dissemination of promising practices.

Fully realizing this vision will require a multi-year commitment. There are steps, however, that Congress and the administration can take to make progress towards these goals. In the paper, we propose several recommendations for federal policy. Taken together, these actions can support Head Start grantees in using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve results for children and families.