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HEAD START & EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Established in 1965 and currently serving some 900,000 children from low-income families at an annual cost of about $10,000 per pupil, the Head Start program is ostensibly intended to provide a boost—in the form of education, nutrition, and health services—to disadvantaged three-to-four-year-olds before they enter elementary school. From Head Start's inception through 2012, American taxpayers spent a more than $180 billion on the program.

But what are taxpayers—and the children enrolled in Head Start—getting in return for all this money? To find out, Congress in 2002 commissioned a scientifically rigorous, longitudinal analysis known as the Head Start Impact Study to evaluate the program's effectiveness. The results, which were released in 2010, indicated that Head Start had little to no effect on the participants' cognitive abilities, socio-emotional development, or physical health. Moreover, whatever meager benefits may have been detectable while the children were actively participating in Head Start “almost completely disappear[ed] by first grade.” As the Heritage Foundation summarizes:

  • For the 41 measures of cognitive outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start failed to have an impact on all measures.
  • For the 41 measures of cognitive outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had a harmful effect on teacher-assessed math ability in kindergarten and failed to have an impact on the 40 other measures
  • For the 40 measures of socio-emotional outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the 39 other measures.
  • For the 40 measures of socio-emotional outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only two beneficial effects and failed to have an impact on the 38 other measures.
  • For the 10 measures of parent-reported health outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the nine other measures.
  • For the 10 measures of parent-reported health outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the nine other measures.
  • For the 21 measures of parenting outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had no effect on all of the measures.
  • For the 21 measures of parent-reported health outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the 20 other measures.

Then, in 2012, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) published the findings of another scientifically rigorous, landmark study that tracked some 5,000 three- and four-year-old children from the beginning of their Head Start experience, through the third grade. This analysis, which was commissioned by HHS, likewise concluded that Head Start had no measurable impact on cognitive, social-emotional, or health-related variables. On a few measures, in fact, access to Head Start had harmful effects on the children. The researchers summarized their results as follows:

"[T]here were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."

In its summary of the findings of the HHS third-grade study, the Heritage Foundation provides a number of specifics:

  • For cognitive development, the third-grade study assessed 11 outcomes for the original three- and four-year-old cohorts. Access to Head Start for each group had no statistically measurable effects on all measures of cognitive ability, including numerous measures of reading, language, and math ability.
  • For social-emotional development, the third-grade study assessed 19 outcomes for each cohort. For measures of parent-reported social-emotional outcomes, access to Head Start for the three-year-old cohort failed to affect four of the five measures. For this cohort, Head Start failed to affect four measures of parental-reported problem behaviors. However, access to Head Start yielded a slight beneficial impact on children in the areas of social skills and positive approaches to learning.
  • For the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start failed to affect four of the five parent-reported social-emotional outcomes. For the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start is associated with a small decrease in aggressive behavior. However, access to Head Start for this cohort failed to affect parental reports of hyperactive, withdrawn, and total problem behaviors. In contrast to the finding for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start failed to affect children displaying better social skills and positive approaches to learning.
  • For third grade, access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effect on the 10 teacher-reported measures of social-emotional development for the three-year-old cohort. However, for the four-year-old cohort, out of 10 measures, access to Head Start is associated with one harmful impact. Teachers reported “strong evidence of an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms.” Access to Head Start for this cohort had no beneficial or harmful impacts on the remaining nine teacher-reported measures.
  • For child-reported measures of social-emotional outcomes, access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effect on the four outcomes for the three-year-old cohort. On the other hand, access to Head Start for the four-year-old cohort appears to have had one harmful impact—children in the third grade with access to Head Start reported worse peer relations than their counterparts.
  • For parent-reported child health, the study assessed five third-grade outcomes for each cohort. Access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effect on all five health measures for each cohort, including receipt of dental care, health insurance coverage, and overall child health status ...
  • For parenting outcomes, the third-grade study assessed 10 measures for both cohorts. Access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effect on nine of the 10 measures reported by parents and the two measures reported by teachers for the three-year-old cohort. However, parents of children in the three-year-old cohort with access to Head Start self-reported an improved authoritative parenting style (i.e., high control and high warmth) compared to their counterparts.
  • Similarly, access to Head Start had no statistically measurable effect on nine of the 10 measures reported by parents and the two measures reported by teachers for the four-year-old cohort. Differing from the three-year-old cohort, parents of children in the four-year-old cohort reported to have spent more time with their children than their counterparts in the control group.

RESOURCES

Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study
Commissioned by the Dept. of Health & Human Services
October 2012

Head Start Fails Poor Children
By Lindsey Burke
January 28, 2013

Head Start Impact Evaluation Report Finally Released
By Lindsey Burke and David Muhlhausen
January 10, 2013

Head Start Earns an F: No Lasting Impact for Children by First Grade
By David Muhlhausen and Dan Lips
January 21, 2010

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