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.