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

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.

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

  1. Greg Forster says:

    The heart of a reporter’s responsibility is to challenge the powerful.

    Well, yes, but what does that have to do with challenging the government?

    Wait, hold on . . . you’re not suggesting that the government is powerful, are you? Because that would be ludicrous.

  2. Kate Martin says:

    Jay – I actually don’t fully understand what kind of quality comes with Head Start preschool. It seems that the programs are all over the map as far as approach? Is the quality of the program the problem?

    • The evaluation examined a representative sample of Head Start programs. Some HS centers may be significantly better than others, but the study found the average effect of the program as a whole.

  3. Ann In L.A. says:

    I think they meant this to read:

    Head Start has been changing lives for the better since its inception by providing free day care to poor families.

  4. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:

    Once again, a costly government program supports government employment and the growth of government while failing to improve the education of childrren, all at the expense of taxpayers. Is anyone really surprised?

  5. […] of Arkansas professor Jay Greene points out that DHHS delayed the release of the last Head Start study, which concluded that the average […]

  6. Patrick says:

    Reporters quote from the press release, they don’t read the actual reports. They want to move on to the next article as quickly as possible.

  7. Dick Schutz says:

    You’re fingering the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, Jay. Government bureaucrats don’t actually do anything; everything is outsourced.

    An Advisory Panel generated the design of the study::


    This was way back in 1999. The study was conducted by a consortium of research job shops


    The report was not issued until January 2010.

    This is not the only randomized control design studies conducted in education under the auspices of the Federal Government that reported “no impact.” It joins a baker’s dozen other studies:


    The Legislative mandate was reasonable:

    “What difference does Head Start make to key outcomes of development and learning (and in particular, the multiple domains of school readiness) for low-income children?

    What difference does Head Start make to parental practices that contribute to children’s school readiness?”

    “Under what circumstances does Head Start achieve the greatest impact? What works for which children? What Head Start services are most related to impact?”

    The study sheds no light on any of these three matters. What went on in Head Start and in the children’s subsequent education remains a black box. Here we are in 2012, knowing nothing more about Head Start than we did a decade+ earlier.

  8. […] a skeptical viewpoint on the long term impact of early childhood education, see “Head Start, A Case Study in the Unreliability of Government Research” on Jay P. Greene’s […]

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