Head Start, A Case Study in the Unreliability of Government Research

March 13, 2012

The Department of Health and Human Resources is up to its old tricks of delaying research whose results are likely to undermine their darling program, Head Start.  A group of five U.S. Senators sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week demanding an explanation for why the latest round of results of the congressionally-mandated study have not been released four years after data collection was complete and one year after the report was scheduled to be released.

In 2010 I told you about how the Department of Health and Human Services delayed the release of the previous round of disappointing research results about the lasting effects of Head Start.  When the extremely high quality study, involving a random-assignment design on a representative sample of all Head Start programs nationwide, was finally released three years after the data collection was complete, it found that students randomly assigned to Head Start performed no better on cognitive measures by the end of kindergarten and first grade.

Despite these null results, HHS issued a statement that in typical Orwellian fashion declared the program a huge success.  Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Carmen Nazario was quoted in the statement concluding that “Head Start has been changing lives for the better since its inception.” And Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was quoted declaring that “research clearly shows that Head Start positively impacts the school readiness of low-income children”

If the government’s proclivity to delay the release of politically undesirable results and to manipulate — actually, completely distort – the findings is not enough to engender skepticism among reporters, researchers, and policymakers, I have no idea what will.  But I continue to see reporters, researchers, and policymakers invoke government research as authoritative without the least bit of critical scrutiny.

This uncritical acceptance of government press releases as gospel by reporters is particularly disgraceful.  I understand that reporters are miserably paid and stretched beyond their limit as staffs are reduced, but the heart of a reporter’s responsibility is to challenge the powerful.  And there is no one more powerful than the government.  They are so powerful that they can delay the release of research and declare that up is down when the results do come out.


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