Head Start: the case for universal public pre-K

Harvard’s David Deming has a bombshell of a study on the long-term effects of Head Start – a program serving poor children, preparing them for entry into elementary school. Deming found that young adults – who participated in the program as young children – are in better health, less likely to be idle, more likely to have graduated high school and more likely to have attended college.

And the size of Head Start’s impact is enormous: the equivalent of 75% of the gap between poor black and white kids; or about 33% of the gap between children in poverty and children in families of median income.

For more than a decade, we’ve known that Head Start’s effects on grades peter out over the course of primary school – and critics of the program have thus far focused on test scores as they questioned the program’s efficacy. But grades are of small benefit if they dont translate into better adult outcomes – what use should we have for a program that produces A-students who are no more likely to graduate, go on to college or be gainfully employed?

Deming’s work shows Head Start to be a far better program than anyone ever imagined. In retrospect, it shouldnt be a surprise – in a nation in which more than 20% of children grow up in poverty, a program that offers food and instruction to young, resource-starved bodies and minds should indeed have powerful effects.

Child poverty in America, after all, isnt just more frequent than it is elsewhere – American poverty is deeper too. American kids in poverty are, on average, much farther below the poverty line than poor children in other rich countries.

We already know that children who grow up in poverty enter elementary school with substantial deficits – and that childhood poverty is predictive of many long-term problems, including reduced income and educational attainment, and increased crime rates.

A more recent study shows things are in fact much worse: brain scans reveal that the differences are physical. Important structures in poor children’s brains are physically smaller than those of children who werent exposed to poverty. Affected areas include those responsible for memory, emotion and speech – such differences have been linked to reduced academic performance and elevated rates of crime and other social ills.

Berating inner-city school systems has become commonplace among conservatives – but it is more and more apparent that we cannot and should not expect elementary schools to undo the effects of poverty, when it’s had years to work its harm long before children arrive to the classroom.

The success of Head Start at improving the lives of young adults hints at the size of the benefit of free, universal public pre-K. The US has become the least meritocratic country in the west – it is harder in America for a poor kid to become rich than it is anyplace else. America is wasting its most precious resource – its children – by failing to invest in them, to give them a chance to make the most of their talents.

It is not out of charity, but self-interest, that all Americans should welcome an expansion of public education to include pre-K. As America becomes more meritocratic – as we maximize the development of each individual, to become more productive members of the world economy, and also to be better citizens and neighbors – we are all made the richer for it.



Click to access Deming_HeadStart.pdf








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