Does Head Start work?

By Yasmina Vinci
December 27, 2012

Is this near five-decade commitment to give every child an opportunity to succeed in life worth the money? At a time when the federal government faces difficult fiscal choices, the question is appropriate. Many expected the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start Impact Study, which was released on Friday, to provide definitive answers.

As it turns out, those expectations were overblown. While the study documented children’s significant gains at the end of the Head Start experience and the flattening benefits of Head Start attendance at the end of third grade, it did not examine a range of factors that could have contributed to the losses and cannot predict whether Head Start children may yet show outcomes into adulthood. A wealth of other studies address these questions and document Head Start’s long-term effectiveness.

One question the HHS study does answer definitively is whether Head Start does its job. The program gets at-risk children ready for kindergarten in every aspect the study measured. After one year in Head Start, children showed gains in vocabulary, letter-word identification, mathematics and social-emotional development compared with peers. In addition, parents involved with the program used more appropriate discipline and spent more time engaging in literacy activities with their children.

These findings affirm the Head Start model in design and in practice. Head Start’s success over the decades has been built on evidence-based practices. The model, informed by programs like the Perry Preschool, an influential  project that tracked children for decades, is constantly adapting ‑ using the best available science and teaching techniques to meet the needs of local communities.

Head Start programs offer an ideal laboratory for the study of effective child development and learning. HSS funds extensive research every year on Head Start and Early Head Start. Current projects include studying social-emotional curriculum supports, teacher coaching practices for professional development and analyzing the learning profiles of children with limited English proficiency. This research reinvigorates Head Start’s practices, ensuring that programs meet children’s needs by creating a deep understanding of how students learn and what supports healthy development.

This work helps further Head Start’s efforts to provide comprehensive services and family engagement. Children in Head Start/Early Head Start programs enter with serious socio-economic disadvantages that can hold them back for life. The program works to serve the most at-risk children, including those who are disabled, homeless or living in extreme poverty. It also enables families to advocate for their children by including them in program governance and ensuring that children and their families have access to education, housing, healthcare, nutrition and other support services.

The goal is to prepare children for success in kindergarten, extend outcomes beyond the classroom and contribute to overall preparedness for life.

That Head Start prepares children for kindergarten is clear from the findings of the HHS study. There also is overwhelming evidence, from hundreds of studies over four decades, that Head Start children benefit from the program throughout their lives.

Head Start graduates are more likely to finish high school and go on to college, research by David Deming of Harvard University showed. They are also more likely to be in good health as adults and less likely to be arrested.

Building on this work, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago documented that cost savings to society because of reduced special education needs and less grade repetition, as well as the benefits to society from children’s adult contributions, likely more than repay investments in Head Start.

Given the evidence of early advantage and lifelong success, it is profoundly troubling to hear, as the HHS study finds, that the benefits of kindergarten readiness seem to flatten out from kindergarten through third grade.

Head Start supports families facing difficult circumstances and seems to mitigate obstacles to learning in the early years. For many students, however, those difficult circumstances continue to influence their lives. These include lack of access to high-quality primary and secondary education; high rates of poverty and violence in their communities, and limited role models for success. Head Start children, like all children, benefit by attending high-performing schools and living in nurturing environments. But this is the reality for too few.

So the answer is – yes, Head Start works. We see it in a Head Start graduate in New York who now owns a small business and a young man in Texas who works for NASA and in thousands of others. Head Start children have gone on to great things because of the early investments in their success. A broader answer is that Head Start works but is only one of the investments required to support children throughout their early years.

We hope our partners in Congress and the administration will continue to work with us to improve the quality of Head Start programs. We also look to the research community to help us identify and implement best practices through third grade ‑ and hope our colleagues in K-12 education continue to be passionate and creative allies.

There are challenges ahead for all of us serving at-risk students from birth to age 8. But together we can ensure that the gains realized by Head Start are sustained in every grade.

PHOTO: School children from the Godard Riverside Head Start program in New York City examine butterflies perched on an orange slice during a special early preview visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Conservatory October 5, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Segar

PHOTO (Insert): Lula Gonzalez, 3, from the Godard Riverside Head Start program in New York City peers up at a butterfly perched on her forehead at the American Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Conservatory October 5, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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[…] Head Start’s data is mediocre, at best. Children in these programs can start at 3 years old. Here’s the original transcript that explains what researchers found: By 1st grade, economically disadvantaged students with access to Head Start demonstrated almost no greater cognitive or emotional development than demographically similar students without access. […]