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  • The Evidence Is In: Head Start Still Doesn't Work

    Delivering his first major address on education in March 2009, President Barack Obama promised the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: “Secretary Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”

    Supposedly keeping with this commitment to “evidence based” policy, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag made the case expanded Head Start funding in a recent edition of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Problem is, as Heritage Foundation Research Fellow David Muhlhausen points out, the science just doesn’t say what Orzag says it does:

    Orszag cites the 2010 Head Start Impact Study as evidence that the number of children participating in Head Start needs to be expanded. While the study experienced unusual delays in being released by Department of Health and Human Services, one would still naturally presume that the study found the program to be highly effective and, thus, deserving of expansion. … Overall, the program had little to no positive effects for children granted access to Head Start. For the four-year-old group, compared to similarly situated children not allowed access to Head Start, access to the program failed to raise the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants on 41 measures. Specifically, the language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance of the participating children failed to improve.

    Alarmingly, access to Head Start for the three-year-old group actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math ability of these children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating children were more prepared in math skills than those children who participated in Head Start.

    Also, Head Start has little to no effect on the other socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of children participating in the program. For the four-year-old group, access to Head Start failed to have an effect for 70 out of 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes. The three-year-old group did slightly better: Access to Head Start failed to have an effect for 66 of the 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes.

    In no way does the 2010 Head Start Impact Study demonstrate “very strong suggestive evidence” that Head Start “pay[s] off over the medium and long term.”[11] Placing more children into an already failed program does not represent placing “significant emphasis on making policy conclusions based on what the evidence suggests.”

    We are sure that Orzag and President Obama have nothing but the very best of intentions when they promote Head Start expansion. And we are sure they believe that the very best social science evidence should show that Head Start works. But it doesn’t. As President Ronald Reagan once said: “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

    Posted in Education [slideshow_deploy]

    14 Responses to The Evidence Is In: Head Start Still Doesn't Work

    1. Charlotte Harrison B says:

      We have to fire or demote these Head Start Center Directors who are covering up for their incompetent staff. Between the Center Director and the Lead Teacher (her second in command) they're ignoring the poor performance of their teachers. Most Head Start classrooms in the US do not have cameras in the classrooms. The Center Director trusts her teachers and she'll look in through the window to observe the class. Since the teacher sees the Center Director out there observing, she'll kick into "developmentally appropriate mode" and will be all smiles and will behave in a sweet and kind-hearted manner. As soon as the Center Director is down the hall, the teacher goes back to ordering the little children around in a stern and very controlling manner. Many Head Start teachers use outdated, inappropriate teaching methods for these young children. They behave alot like those strict, elderly Nuns from the Catholic elementary schools. You know the types; "spare the rod spoil the child". These old fashioned Head Start teachers usually only have a high school diploma and they're "working on" their associates degree. What's the difference between a federally paid Head Start teacher and a public school Kindergarten teacher? Well, the Kindergarten teacher in the public school system will have a BS degree and quite often will have a Masters degree on top of that. The Head Start teacher usually has an AAS degree from a junior college that she earned many years after she had been teaching in the Head Start classroom

    2. Dr. Leigh Taliaferro says:

      The problem starts with the home situation. That will not be solved by any government program. In addition, The government is broke, and this program is one that should be defunded.

    3. Kathleen Utah says:

      While a son was living in Las Vegas, he attempted to enroll his daughter who is half Thai, but always confused as Hispanic in a pre school. How could those children ever learn English, when all they spoke to them was in Spanish? Everything they taught them was Spanish? Her brother in Kindergarden was separated with 8-10 other classmates, as he looks Asian. His group was taught in English, and the rest of class was taught in Spanish. And we are suppose to believe that they are attempting to enculturat the Hispanics into our Society.

      They had a friend, in Utah, whose kids were enrolled in Head Start because English was not spoken in the home. 7 years later, those kids still don't have a command of the English language.

      None of those schools in Las Vegas qualified under No Child Left Behind Program. And by the way when our granddaughter was in Kindergarden there were 52 students in her class. The only education she got that year or the one before were educational games for computer.

      Head Start has been a dismal failure for years.

      Here in Utah County, there is a problem school, that is almost exclusively Spanish. Those children are taught such animosity for the United States and Americans from home, that it is almost impossible for them to be taught.

      Education in the elementary schools are beginning to be painted with the same brush. I say, get big government out of education.

      Let the local government deal with it. Why shouldn't the billigerent Hispanics be required to teach their own? And at their own expense?

    4. TJS, FL says:

      Head Start formerly was recognized as having a positive effect which wore off in 2 or 3 years. Now it has no proven effect at all. Time to end it. We're broke and deeply in debt due to these wasteful, do-gooder programs.

    5. Donald DeHoff (Major says:

      I watched this vidio of President Reagan's, "A time for Choosing", not once, twice, but three times. I came away refreshed and more determined to "run most all of the politicians out of town on a rail". However, I am but an amateur on this computer and I know not how to get this great vidio/speech in front of the public—-someone out there, help me!. This vidio, presented to the public before the comming election, could well be the "tie-breaker" for most all of our conservative candidates.

    6. Robert V. Rose, MD ( says:


      This article appeared on-line on Oct 5, 2010. The URL for the article is


      How Handwriting Trains the Brain

      Forming Letters Is Key to Learning, Memory, Ideas



      Comments (26)

      more in Business »



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      Ask preschooler Zane Pike to write his name or the alphabet, then watch this 4-year-old's stubborn side kick in. He spurns practice at school and tosses aside workbooks at home. But Angie Pike, Zane's mom, persists, believing that handwriting is a building block to learning.

      Wendy Bounds discusses the fading art of handwriting, pointing out that new research shows it can benefit children's motor skills and their ability to compose ideas and achieve goals throughout life.

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      Gwendolyn Bounds reports on what your handwriting says about your brain and everything else.

      She's right. Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.

      It's not just children who benefit. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

      Studies suggest there's real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill, even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards big and small. Indeed, technology often gets blamed for handwriting's demise. But in an interesting twist, new software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to reinvigorate the practice.

      View Full Image

      Angie Pike

      Four-year-old Zane Pike used to toss aside his handwriting books. Now, the Cabot, Ark., preschooler is learning to write his letters using a smartphone application.

      Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary-grade curriculum, but today that amounts to just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation's largest handwriting-curriculum publishers. Even at institutions that make it a strong priority, such as the private Brearley School in New York City, "some parents say, 'I can't believe you are wasting a minute on this,'" says Linda Boldt, the school's head of learning skills.

      Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning. During one study at Indiana University published this year, researchers invited children to man a "spaceship," actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called "functional" MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and "adult-like" than in those who had simply looked at letters.

      "It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time," says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who led the study.


      The Juggle: In Digital Age, Does Handwriting Still Matter?

      Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, in a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters' proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

      Other research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

      She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

      And one recent study of hers demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

      View Full Image

      AJ Mast for the Wall Street Journal

      For research at Indiana University, children undergo specialized MRI brain scans that spot neurological activity.

      Even in the digital age, people remain enthralled by handwriting for myriad reasons—the intimacy implied by a loved one's script, or what the slant and shape of letters might reveal about personality. During actress Lindsay Lohan's probation violation court appearance this summer, a swarm of handwriting experts proffered analysis of her blocky courtroom scribbling. "Projecting a false image" and "crossing boundaries," concluded two on celebrity news and entertainment site hollywoodlife.com. Beyond identifying personality traits through handwriting, called graphology, some doctors treating neurological disorders say handwriting can be an early diagnostic tool.

      "Some patients bring in journals from the years, and you can see dramatic change from when they were 55 and doing fine and now at 70," says P. Murali Doraiswamy, a neuroscientist at Duke University. "As more people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise."

      In high schools, where laptops are increasingly used, handwriting still matters. In the essay section of SAT college-entrance exams, scorers unable to read a student's writing can assign that portion an "illegible" score of 0.

      Even legible handwriting that's messy can have its own ramifications, says Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University. He cites several studies indicating that good handwriting can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad penmanship could tank it to the 16th. "There is a reader effect that is insidious," Dr. Graham says. "People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting."

      Handwriting-curriculum creators say they're seeing renewed interest among parents looking to hone older children's skills—or even their own penmanship. Nan Barchowsky, who developed the Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting method to ease transition from print-script to joined cursive letters, says she's sold more than 1,500 copies of "Fix It … Write" in the past year.

      Some high-tech allies also are giving the practice an unexpected boost through hand-held gadgets like smartphones and tablets. Dan Feather, a graphic designer and computer consultant in Nashville, Tenn., says he's "never adapted well to the keypads on little devices." Instead, he uses a $3.99 application called "WritePad" on his iPhone. It accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus, then converts it to text for email, documents or Twitter updates.

      And apps are helping Zane Pike—the 4-year-old who refused to practice his letters. The Cabot, Ark., boy won't put down his mom's iPhone, where she's downloaded a $1.99 app called "abc PocketPhonics." The program instructs Zane to draw letters with his finger or a stylus; correct movements earn him cheering pencils.

      Indiana University

      In children who had practiced writing by hand, the scans showed heightened brain activity in a key area, circled on the image at right, indicating learning took place.

      "He thinks it's a game," says Angie Pike.

      Similarly, kindergartners at Harford Day School in Bel Air, Md., are taught to write on paper but recently also began tracing letter shapes on the screen of an iPad using a handwriting app.

      "Children will be using technology unlike I did, and it's important for teachers to be familiar with it," says Kay Crocker, the school's lead kindergarten teacher. Regardless of the input method, she says, "You still need to be able to write, and someone needs to be able to read it."

      Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at wendy.bounds@wsj.com

      Sent by Bob Rose, Jasper, Georgia

    7. Spiritof76, NH says:

      Education of children depends to a large extent on parent involvement and the value they place on it. Schools can only augment and strengthen that value from home. The sad aspect of our culture is lack of emphasis on academic achievement. Academcially leaning kids are being ridiculed as "nerds" and the Hollywood and other such programs constantly emphasize it. Typically, the Asian kids outperform kids from other groups because their family values and traditions.

    8. Denise Boland Queens says:

      Wow, I can't believe what I am reading. This program is so popular. Why isn't this finding a headline on the nightly news?

    9. Joe, OBX says:

      Denise: You don't find this headline on the evening news because the program is popular, especially with certain power people. It being popular with them makes it a VERY unpopular news item for for the main media to cover.

    10. Dirk Shumaker, Ancho says:

      Maybe it would be helpful to actually quote the study: "Head Start has positive impacts on several aspects of children's school readiness….including impacts on vocabulary, letter-word identification, spelling, pre-academic skills, color identification, letter naming…." (Executive summary, page iv)

      The summary goes on to note that "the advantages children gained during their Head Start years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of the 1st grade…." So, children make significant gains while they are in Head Start, then lose these gains AFTER they leave the program. Why is this construed as a Head Start problem and not a problem with what happens after Head Start?

      Furthermore, the study followed children who were enrolled in Head Start for a grand total of 8 months for an average of 28 hours a week. Not much time to work miracles for children who typically experience many challenges to school success. The fact that Head Start children are better prepared for school than they would otherwise be deserves to be recognized. Why does this author not acknowledge it?

    11. Michele, Maine says:

      As a teacher for Head Start, I have my own theory as to why it isn't working.

      For one thing, the number of children in the class is too large. When you cram 19 children between the ages of 3-5 in a small space, it feels more like a puppy farm to me. It's hard to do anything with them. Things like reading, lunch, nap, snack, brushing teeth, and recess are so challenging that most teachers don't stay very long. On top of that, the pay is so pitiful, it's one step up from McDonalds. Add to this the unrealistic expectations of the ERF program (Early Reading First), and it's no wonder that it's not working. On top of that, there are way too many people sitting behind their desks, chatting on Facebook, while the lowest paid do everything. There is something seriously wrong with this program. stay there because I love the kids. I know that I'm boosting their self-esteem, exposing them to reading, writing, and social skills that will certainly help. I take it one day at a time. This job takes every drop of energy I have every day. The rewards are not financial; that's for sure.

      Finally, Head Start offers one thing that seems to be overlooked by many. For all of the low income children it serves, it is a place to get two meals and a snack, hugs, lots of love,

      If the child/teacher ratio could be reexamined, the teachers paid a lot more and offered low cost professional development, the dead wood behind the desk put to work where it's needed…working with the children….This program would without a doubt produce the miracles that it's capable of producing.

    12. Julie, Oregon says:

      I could not agree with Michele more. I taught for Head Start for over twenty years had twenty children (3-5) in the classroom, and felt the support from the administrators for the staff and children, was very weak. Children's needs were unmet, but policies and procedures were followed. It deeply saddens me to see the most needy being treated like a number on a page. All children deserve the opportunity to flourish but where I taught I was told time and again, especially in the last few years, that Head Start is a business and the staff will be micromanaged and do what their told, whether they think it is right or not. Something needs to change!

      The local community call this Head Start "The Factory."

      • judie says:

        I could not agree more with both Julie and Michele. Head Start is ideally a remarkable program with some very talented and intelligent teachers. However, the so-called administrators are far too often weak. and in some cases incompetent. I was told by my director that within their "System", the area manager had to pick up the slack: i.e. even if all are absent at the same time, be the teacher, be the cook, be the program director, be the advocate, get the information into the software program and all the reports done: and do not work any overtime. I was fired for protesting these practices. It takes more than 2-3 people in the classroom each day to make a lasting impact on children…especially those disenfranchised in our society. Additionally, anyone supervising teachers should have had experience as teachers themselves.

    13. Bob Rose says:

      the reason Head Start does not facilitate learning to read in kindergarten and first grade is because Head Start does not teach children to write the letters of the whole alphabet fluently with a pencil

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