Is Head Start a Good Investment? A Prominent Economist Weighs In

By Debra Viadero — November 11, 2009 1 min read
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A lot of policymakers and educators have been drawing hope from recent studies of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. If you haven’t heard of it, the Perry Preschool project was an early-intervention program for children from disadvantaged families that was run out of Perry Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s. A forerunner of the federal Head Start program, the project has long been considered a success.

Recent re-analyses of program data show that, from a public-investment perspective, it provided a pretty good bang for the buck, too. Those studies estimate the rates of return to be about 16 percent to 17 percent. You’d be hard-pressed to find a checking account or a certificate of deposit that pays that well. The rate is high in part because, compared with nonparticipants, fewer of the program grads required special education services or ended up in prison later on in life.

In a new working paper, however, Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman and colleagues suggest those earlier estimates might have been a little too generous. In their paper, which was posted online this month at the Web site for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economists argue that the previous analyses were flawed because of problems in the randomization process for the original experiment, missing data and costs, and a failure to calculate standard errors.

When they account statistically for all those issues, they come up with a rate of return that falls somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. That’s still statistically better than zero, they maintain. But it’s not nearly as exciting as 16 or 17 percent. Look for this study to figure heavily in debates over President Obama’s plans to expand the federal Head Start program.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.