Head Start:

Challenges Faced in Demonstrating Program Results and Responding to Societal Changes

T-HEHS-98-183: Published: Jun 9, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 9, 1998.

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Carlotta C. Joyner
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed its work on the Head Start program, focusing on: (1) how well the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ensures that the Head Start program is achieving its purpose; and (2) how well Head Start is structured to meet the needs of program participants in today's social context, which differs significantly from that of 30 years ago.

GAO noted that: (1) Head Start has, through the years, provided a comprehensive array of services and, as envisioned by the Government Performance and Results Act, has in recent years substantially strengthened its emphasis on determining the results of those services; (2) its processes still provide too little information, however, about how well the program is achieving its intended purposes; (3) HHS has developed a performance assessment framework that effectively links program activities with the program's overall strategic mission and goal; (4) this framework also includes measurable objectives for how the program will be implemented and what outcomes will be achieved; (5) HHS has new initiatives that will, in the next few years, provide information not previously available on outcomes such as gains made by children and their families while in the program; (6) currently, however, these initiatives are limited to assessing outcomes at the national level, not at the local agency level; (7) in addition, GAO is not convinced that these initiatives will provide definite information on impact, that is, whether children and their families would have achieved these gains without participating in Head Start; (8) although obtaining this kind of impact information would be difficult, the significance of Head Start and the sizeable investment in it warrant conducting studies that will provide answers to questions about whether the program is making a difference; (9) in addition to questions about the program's impact, questions exist about whether Head Start is structured to meet the needs of today's participants who live in a society much changed since the mid-1960s when the program was created; (10) families' needs have changed as more parents are working full time either by choice or necessity; (11) in addition, children and their families can now receive services similar to Head Start's from a growing number of other programs; (12) these social trends raise questions about how well Head Start is structured to meet participants' needs and, if changes are needed, what those changes should be; and (13) a lack of information about the array of community programs available and about actions local Head Start agencies have already taken hinders decisionmakers' ability to respond to these trends.

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