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Are federal social programs working? No one knows.

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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 skills.

The quintessential "Great Society" program, Head Start was intended to give disadvantaged children an educational boost before starting elementary school. When enacted in 1965, its $96 million budget was intended to help kids in the summer. Early, small-bore evaluations were positive, and the program grew.

Today, Head Start has a $7 billion budget and legions of invested stakeholders. But it's not working for the kids and it's awfully expensive. Even liberal Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, commenting on Head Start, recently wrote, "[W]e need world-class education programs, from infancy on up. But we can no longer afford to be sloppy about dispensing cash.... "

It's past time for lawmakers to figure out just how well the programs Congress funds are working. As a first step, every time it authorizes or reauthorizes a social program, Congress should specifically mandate that the program undergo a rigorous experimental evaluation.

This is imminently doable. When Congress creates social programs, the funded activities spread out across the nation. The stage is set for a large-scale, multisite evaluation.

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