OP-ED: The Benefits of Head Start | Bill Foxcroft

On this 50th anniversary of Head Start, the most successful and longest running national school readiness program in the U.S., it is important to celebrate, but also to address some of the serious misperceptions and misunderstanding about the value and effectiveness of Head Start. 

First, the evidence is clear that children who enter school not ready to learn, are disadvantaged throughout their lives - they are likely never to “catch up” in their ability to read, learn and succeed. This is most evident for children living in poverty; in these kids there is a long term, persistent achievement gap. They are over-represented in statistics of reading failure and school drop-out rates.  Head Start represents a national commitment to providing early learning opportunities for these low income and vulnerable young children and comprehensive supports to help their families achieve long-term stability and success. The Head Start premise is simple but powerful: every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to reach their full potential if given the opportunity.  

Even so, particularly, in the past couple of years, pundits and some members of Congress have been critical of the program, citing the Head Start Impact Study - a national evaluation of the program that intended to look at children who were assigned to Head Start in 2002 and compared them to children who were not assigned to the program.  At a recent City Club Forum in Boise, a questioner implicated this study as evidence that Head Start doesn’t work.

Here’s what the Impact Study found: that Head Start children were better prepared for kindergarten in every aspect that the study measured compared to peers who did not attend Head Start.  Critics, however, have focused on another finding, that these advantages “fade out” through 3rd grade.  

The Impact Study was badly contaminated in that there was a high rate of participation of children who were supposed to be in the control group but instead found a way to enroll in Head Start – nearly half of the three years olds in the control group attended Head Start when they were four; and 18% of 3 year old, and 14% of 4 year old control group kids actually attended Head Start during the study period - raising questions about how big a difference there would be in their academic performance once they were in grade school.

It has been suggested that the poor quality of elementary schools that Head Start children attended is also likely to blame.  Dr. Edward Zigler, a Yale University professor, and one of the most well-known early child development experts noted “it would be unfair to hold Head Start responsible when its graduates lose their advantage once they attend failing schools. It is also unreasonable to expect that a brief 9 to 12 month preschool experience will have more power over children’s academic fate than their experiences in elementary schools, which have them a lot longer than Head Start does.”  As Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman wrote, “It (the fadeout argument) overlooks the fact that many Head Start children move from a nurturing early education environment into a low-quality elementary school. Gains made in early childhood education must be sustained with quality education.”  Head Start prepares children for school, and it does it effectively. Once schools take over it is their responsibility to keep the momentum going. 

The Head Start Impact Study was based on a cohort of children in 2002. In the 13 years since that study, the Office of Head Start has been focused on increasing the quality of instruction in Head Start programs nationwide in several important ways, and these continue today.  Here are just a few examples: In 2007 the Head Start Act was signed into law with several major reforms, including a requirement that half of all lead teachers must have at least a B.A. degree.  In 2002, only 25% of Head Start teachers had at least a B.A. degree, and now in 2015 more than 70% of lead teachers have at least a four year degree.   In addition, Assistant Teachers must also hold a current Child Development Associate Credential. That’s quite a huge change.

 A new tool, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), developed at the University of Virginia, is used to assess the quality of interactions between Teachers and children in the classroom. It measures how well teachers support a child’s emotional needs, how well they manage a classroom, and the quality of their instructional interactions. This new tool has led to an increase in the quality of teaching and better outcomes for children;

An initiative from the Office of Head Start required each program in the nation to set school readiness goals in 5 developmental domains: perceptual motor and physical development, approaches to learning, language and literacy, social/emotional development and cognition. Programs establish school readiness goals, and track the progress of children at three levels: each child, each classroom of children, and the total number of children in the program. The program’s success in preparing children for school is tracked each year and analyzed; this information is used for Teacher training and program improvement; and

Through a rigorous program monitoring process, low performing programs are identified which either make the required improvements or are replaced with programs which will meet the high quality standards.

You might wonder whether these reforms have led to better outcomes.  Beyond the Head Start Impact Study, the government also reviews Head Start’s quality through the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey called FACES.  Researchers evaluated Head Start in 2003, 2006, and 2009. The 2003 cohort would most closely match the children evaluated by the Impact Study in 2002.  

Steve Barnett from the National Institute of Early Education Research, an occasional critic of Head Start, did an analysis of the data and found that the language and literacy gains for children from 2003 compared to 2009 were sometimes two or more times as large. In other words the program got a heck of a lot better between 2002 and 2009. 

In another recent evaluation of Head Start in 2012 researchers at Mississippi State University, using the state’s educational data warehouse, compared children that attended Head Start to their peers that did not attend.  There were more than 12,000 children in this study. Unlike the Impact Study, they did not have to worry about the control group being contaminated because they had data on actual children and knew which child went to which program.  They then looked at how these Head Start children were doing in 3rd grade. What they found was amazing and completely contrary to what the Impact Study evaluators found:

Head Start children were 18 percent less likely to be held back in school  than the comparison group. Head Start kids were 26 percent less likely to receive special education assistance than the comparison group. Head Start children were 2.24 and 2.31 times more likely to be proficient in language and writing than the comparison group, respectively.  Similarly, the data show that Head Start children are twice as likely to be proficient in math as the comparison group. The authors conclude that “the results clearly show that Head Start has a significant impact in the first years of elementary education.”  

Critics of Head Start should stop citing the Head Start Impact Study as the latest research on Head Start. It is completely outdated and not a fair assessment of where the program is in 2015. Since 2002, Head Start quality has continued to improve, research has shown that gains in school readiness have continually progressed. Head Start was outstanding then, and it is a much improved now in 2015.  The next time someone talks to you about how Head Start doesn’t work and how the benefits “fade out” tell them to visit today’s Head Start.   I think they’ll be impressed with what they see.