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Head Start or False Start?

Inequality, as my colleague Tim Noah will tell you, reflects many factors. But one of them is education, particularly early childhood education. Young children from more affluent families get quality care and teaching, while less affluent children do not. And that disparity inevitably affects how these children fare later in life -- intellectually, emotionally, and, ultimately, financially.

But what do we do about it? In today’s New York Times, Nick Kristof makes the case for funding more programs to help children from poor families get quality education before kindergarten, primarily through programs like Head Start. To make his case, he cites the well-documented success of programs like the Perry Preschool in Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina.

Kristof’s argument resonates with the work of many academics, most notably among them University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who has turned better early childhood education into something of a personal crusade. Timothy Bartik,* senior economist at the Upjohn Institute and author of a book called Investing in Kids, writes that “even a preschool program that lasts only for one school-year at age 4, and is a half-day program, can, if it is a high-quality program, raise the future income from earnings of the lowest income quintile by over 6% of their expected future income.”

But not everybody is a fan of these programs – or, at least, the way the federal government has handled them. A few months ago, Time’s Joe Klein wrote about a new study from the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS study was, he says, the most comprehensive study of Head Start programs around the country. And the results were pretty dismal:

According to the Head Start Impact Study, which was quite comprehensive, the positive effects of the program were minimal and vanished by the end of first grade. Head Start graduates performed about the same as students of similar income and social status who were not part of the program. These results were so shocking that the HHS team sat on them for several years, according to Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, who said, "I guess they were trying to rerun the data to see if they could come up with anything positive. They couldn't."

So who’s right, Kristof or Klein?

I have high regard for both writers and, to be honest, I haven’t done enough research on this specific question to adjudicate it independently. (I’ve been working on an article about even earlier interventions, but that’s really a separate subject.) But reading their columns side by side, I wonder if their views are actually as different as they seem at first blush.

If I understand Klein’s column correctly, he's not saying that Head Start can’t work in theory. He's saying that it doesn't usually work in practice, because HHS ends up funding a lot of really mediocre programs. He recommends, among other things, transferring control over to the Department of Education, which would ideally focus more diligently on funding programs that actually teach well. And if that doesn't work? I gather he'd prefer to see the money go into some other educational program that did produce lasting gains.

Kristof, for his part, acknowledges “that many antipoverty initiatives work wonderfully when they’re experiments but founder when scaled up.” (Bartwik seems to be saying the same thing; notice the word “if” in the quote I’ve used.) Kristof also points out that while the programs may not have a huge effect on educational attainment, they seem to help in other ways. According to at least one major study, children are less likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, for example, and less likely to have serious health problems.

I don’t want to minimize the differences here: Klein is obviously more skeptical than Kristof. In that respect, the two columnists speak for a much larger group of people who share an interest in helping very young children from low-income families but disagree about how best to do it. But both men believe the federal government has an important role to play in early childhood education. The question is whether the government fulfills that role already -- and what it should do differently in the future.

*I discovered Bartik last week, or rather he discovered me, when he wrote a critical response to my item about prostate cancer screening. He made some good points – I’ll be posting more on that soon.