Most federal social programs have never been evaluated for true
effectiveness. The good news is that they are ideally situated for
just such study.
Health, education, welfare ... the federal government spends more
than $630 billion annually on hundreds of social programs. How many
of them work? No one knows. And that's a problem.
Most federal programs have never been evaluated for true
effectiveness. And most evaluations that are conducted - and there
are many - aren't worth the paper they're written on. They may
examine a national program only locally, or lack a "control group"
to compare against.
The best way to determine whether such programs work is to
conduct large-scale, multisite, experimental evaluations. These
studies should use random assignment to compare results of people
assigned to programs with those in similar circumstances but not
assigned to the programs.
The good news is that federal programs are ideally situated to
accommodate such evaluations. The bad news: The federal government
has conducted only 13 such evaluations since it began to study
itself in the 1960s.
Maybe the Feds just don't want to be purveyors of bad news.
That's certainly what emerged from the 2010 Head Start Impact Study.
A rigorous experimental evaluation, the study placed almost 5,000
children eligible for Head Start into two treatment conditions,
determined by a lottery. Children who won the lottery got access to
prekindergarten Head Start services; the others either didn't attend
preschool or found alternatives to Head Start.
The study tracked the children's progress through kindergarten
and the first grade. Overall, the program yielded little to no
positive effects. On all 41 measures of cognitive ability, Head
Start failed to raise abilities of those who entered the program as
4-year-olds. Specifically, their language skills, literacy, math
skills, and school performance were no better than those of the
children denied access to the program.
Those who entered as 3-year-olds had similar results. They scored
no better than nonparticipants on 40 of the cognitive measures and
significantly worse on one: Head Start grads, according to their
kindergarten teachers, were significantly less well prepared in math
The quintessential "Great Society" program, Head Start was
intended to give disadvantaged children an educational boost before
starting elementary school. …