Head Start, the pre-elementary school development program for children with high needs, has come under scrutiny recently.  President Obama has asserted that some Head Start programs are deficient, and following his administrations “race to the top” initiative for public school funding, put in place a program by which some Head Start programs must in essence compete in order to stay in existence.

There two distinct and important points here that are often getting rolled into each other, but have distinct implications.  The first is the question of what deficient means, the second why Head Start does indeed fail in a number of longitudinal studies.

Operationalizing variables when studying the effectiveness of various social services in tremendously complex.  Generally, a researcher has a choice between using more time-limited outcome measures and having a better chance of statistically significant and reliable results, or between longer term measures and an often vastly diminished chance of any statistical certitude.  There are exceptions to this bind, but they tend to be found amongst simpler population and with less interesting research questions.  Following up on 5 and 10 year sobriety with former patients of a rehabilitation program, for instance, is (generally) much easier than measuring the effect of Head Start enrollment on high school graduation rates.  There are various confidentiality barrier that impede the latter, and families tend to move school districts which will mess with your sample such that the stats quickly become wonky, if not invalid.  This is especially true if the rehab program dealt with higher income folks, who seem to move around and change phone numbers less.

For this reason, I’m always very skeptical of systemic claims that a certain intervention doesn’t work, especially when social services and/or the public school system is concerned.  Often the supposedly supportive evidence isn’t as extensive as one is led to believe.

Unfortunately, there is a growing body of research which suggests that gains made in Head Start tend to not be especially durable once students transition to public school.  The reason (in my opinion) is first, that the structure of Head Start and level of intervention it provides is rarely replicated in further schooling, and second that the family, social, and cultural issues which tend to place a kid in Head Start are vast and intractable.  Asking a single program to make a substantive effect in such things is not realistic.

The best work of Head Start has little or nothing to do with traditional education, but rather with socialization and teaching parenting skills.  The hard fact is that Head Start tends to serve lower income families, and that for a variety of reason (which are beyond the present scope) the problems which Head Start is meant to address seem to be correlated fairly strongly with poverty: things like academic delays, poor emotion management, delayed social skills, and limited home support for education.  Head Start at it’s best provides a range of services to meet these challenges, and even if such supports were maintained after two years of Head Start, and even if parent participation is consistent (far from a given), it is unrealistic to think that trans-generational problems will be solved by one or two years of intervention, even at 4-5 hours a day.

The dirty little secret behind all of this is that public schools in America have been social service institutions for well over a century; at least since Dewey et al. saw them as a tool of melting-pot acculturation.  More and more social services are being met through the schools (outpatient therapy, psychiatric medication administration) because school is the one place by law children have to go.  There are (baring Family Service legal involvement) usually no consequences for skipping a therapy appointment, but there are (at least in theory) for keeping the kids out of school.  Ergo until public school is given credit and funding for all the things it has been doing for decades, it will continue to often do them poorly, and thus more exhaustive interventions like Head Start will continue to have limited effect.