School & District Management

Researchers Argue Head Start Study Delayed, Ignored

By Debra Viadero — April 05, 2010 4 min read
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When Congress reauthorized the federal Head Start program for disadvantaged children in 1998, it ordered a national study to measure how much difference the program was making.

Twelve years and nearly $34 million later, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fulfilled that request, delivering the final results of the “Head Start Impact Study” to federal lawmakers on Jan. 13. But the study findings, which were generally disappointing, got scarcely any mention in the national news media.

Now, the long wait for the findings and the deafening silence that met the results are leading a pair of researchers and the Washington-based Heritage Foundation to ask some hard questions about it. What they want to know is: Did federal officials delay the results, and did the media ignore them?

“There’s an appearance of foot-dragging on the release of the data,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. He noted that the final results came six years after data collection ended for at least one cohort of students in the study. “Appearance does not mean reality at all,” Mr. Whitehurst said, “but it’s important for an agency to avoid even the appearance.”

The charge that the media ignored the report’s findings comes from Nicholas Zill, a research psychologist and consultant. Until 2008, he headed the child- and family-study group at Westat Inc., the Rockville, Md., research firm that led the Head Start study.

He and Mr. Whitehurst spoke at a recent forum on the subject hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-oriented think tank that raised some of the same questions about the study in a blog.

“I think the main reason the study was ignored was that the results were negative,” Mr. Zill said.“If they were positive, they would’ve been on the front page of The New York Times.

Education Week reported the news in a full-length online story on Jan. 14. A shorter version appeared in the print edition of the paper on Jan. 20.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe of the Administration for Children and Families said in an e-mail that the agency wasn’t commenting on whether the findings were delayed. But Camilla Heid, a project director for the study at Westat, said the federal review process was not unusually long.

“It seems to me, from having worked with government before, that the review process is always lengthy,” she said, noting that researchers are still analyzing 2007 and 2008 data from the study.

Likewise, members of the media deny that the omission stemmed from any favorable bias toward the program.

Fading Advantage

Begun in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty,” the $7.35 billion-a-year Head Start serves about 1 million 3- and 4-year-olds. President Barack Obama, in his fiscal 2011 budget request, has proposed adding another $1 billion to the program.

The congressionally mandated study, launched in 2002, draws on a nationally representative sample of 5,000 children from low-income families. Through lotteries held at oversubscribed Head Start programs, half the group was assigned to the federal program. The other half took part in whatever early-education efforts their families arranged, whether that meant home care or a more formal program.

The study found that even though participation in Head Start had positive effects on children’s learning while they were in the program, most of that advantage disappeared by the end of 1st grade.

“I don’t think it got a lot of attention, that’s for sure,” said Liz Willen, the associate director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She writes a blog for the institute, called EarlyStories, that is intended to draw reporters’ attention to early-childhood issues.

She argues, however, that reporters may have missed the study because HHS “buried the lead” in the press release by not announcing the results until the fifth paragraph.

“Also, early childhood is not an area that the mainstream press is interested in covering,” Ms. Willen added. “They’ll swoop in and out and do a story, but it’s not on anyone’s beat.” Coverage of early-childhood issues is especially shrinking now as financial pressures force newsrooms to consolidate education beats.

Nick Anderson, the deputy education editor and national education writer for The Washington Post, agreed.

“I wouldn’t say we avoid bad stories or avoid good stories,” he said. “We look for interesting news.”

“There’s a pretty heavy flow of news, and you have to make judgments every day. This just didn’t make the cut,” he said, adding that he could be persuaded to revisit that decision if experts thought he had missed important news.

Mr. Zill contends that lobbying efforts by national advocacy and early-childhood groups also may have persuaded reporters and policymakers to discount the findings.

In addition, the long wait for the results may have weakened interest in the study, Mr. Whitehurst said, pointing out that the federal law reauthorizing Head Start was signed three years ago. “Actions that should’ve been predicated on the results of the data were already taken by then,” he said.

Mr. Whitehurst said “good practice” for federal agencies, as the National Research Council recommends, calls for reports to be issued one year after data-collection ends, while a two-year lag would be considered “poor practice.”

“What can you say about six years?” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Researchers Argue Head Start Study Delayed, Ignored

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