In the five decades since its launch, more than 33 million low-income children have participated in Head Start, the federal government’s early-childhood education program designed to narrow the gaps between rich and poor students by providing disadvantaged children with comprehensive preschool. Nearly one million children were enrolled in 2015 alone, and research has shown that the program has had positive effects on children later in life and in their education.
But last month, the Brookings Institution, an influential, centrist think tank based in Washington, D.C., published a “consensus statement” on the “current state of scientific knowledge” as it pertains to pre-K research, and failed to include some of the most important research available on Head Start’s impact.
There’s been growing bipartisan interest in expanding pre-kindergarten systems, as legislators and policy experts increasingly view early-childhood learning as a smart investment for youth development and success later in life. The Brookings report, a collaboration among ten social scientists over the past year, was created to help inform policymakers and practitioners on how best to expand and improve pre-K systems based on the existing research evidence.
Yet the Brookings consensus statement, entitled “Puzzling It Out,” is puzzling. The authors write:
“Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled pre-K programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-K induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.”
In fact, the most prominent “scaled pre-K program” is Head Start, but here’s what the Brookings consensus statement has to say about the program:
The challenges of scale-up are illustrated by the national Head Start program, for which consistently strong and enduring impacts have been elusive. … Studies examining adolescent and adult outcomes for graduates of Head Start programs during the 1970s and 1980s found positive impacts into early adulthood … but the results of a large-scale, randomized trial of Head Start launched in 2002 were much less encouraging. Despite a boost for children’s academic skills at the end of their Head Start year, the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) found that these initial gains rapidly dissipated once children began formal schooling.
Curiously, “Puzzling It Out” fails to mention the recent work out of University of California, Berkeley, where social scientists have reanalyzed data used in the 2002 HSIS study, finding much more positive results than previously understood. In a policy brief synthesizing these newer studies, Claire Montialoux of Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, writes that the original HSIS conclusions “are too pessimistic and substantially underestimate the benefits of Head Start.”
Brookings’s consensus report also ignores the work of two of its own research fellows, Lauren Bauer and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who published a study last summer finding that Head Start participation increased the probability that students would graduate from high school, attend college, and obtain a post-secondary degree. The researchers also found that overall, and particularly among African Americans, Head Start led to social, emotional, and behavioral gains that were evident in adulthood.
Bauer told the Prospect that she disagrees with the new report’s conclusion that Head Start has largely failed to produce long-term gains. “I think we have fairly convincing evidence from the Perry preschool program, from the Abecedarian program, from the quasi-experimental long-term studies of Head Start, that all suggest that decades after the opportunity to get a high-quality preschool education, children’s’ lives become meaningfully better,” Bauer says. She was not involved in drafting the “Puzzling It Out” report, and says she could not speak to how the authors chose what to include or exclude.
When asked about the report’s omission of positive Head Start studies, Deborah Phillips, a psychology professor at Georgetown and the report’s lead author, first responded by saying that the report simply wasn’t focused on Head Start, and that her team of collaborators “did not delve into that evidence base [when] coming up with their consensus statement.”
Yet their report specifically discusses Head Start, and presents conclusions strongly suggesting that the research to date on the program is not notable. When pressed on this, Phillips said: “Again, we just did not look at that secondary data [from Berkeley]. I think in another year it will be a perfect time to draw conclusions, but for this effort—we were doing much of our work in the fall and early winter and we knew more work would be coming out—we just didn’t feel we could reframe it and include it. But all of us feel it is very important work.”
Important as the work may be, the coalition of scholars working on the new Brookings report apparently saw no reason to let it influence their “consensus” statement. Which, in turn, raises some questions about what, exactly, drives consensus in the first place.
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