Does Head Start Work? Wrong Question

By Hannah Matthews

It’s a tired debate born of selective reading and contrarian sound bites: Does Head Start work?

The research shows that it clearly does.  Decades of studies, including the most recent Head Start Impact Study, have found that at the end of Head Start, prior to kindergarten, the program shows wide-ranging positive effects on children and families from language and pre-reading abilities to parenting skills.  And even though Head Start dates back to 1965, the latest research has proven its creators right about many basic principles.

Since its inception, Head Start’s core has been a comprehensive approach to high-quality early education and a focus on the whole child—recognizing the importance of social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Head Start children receive medical and developmental screenings and subsequent treatment for identified concerns. They receive regular medical and dental care. And their families receive parenting education, health education and support services connecting them to education and jobs. Current research tells us that this full array of services is what early education programs should offer to have a positive effect on vulnerable children.

But it’s not just the comprehensive approach that makes Head Start a leader.  Head Start’s rigorous quality standards and monitoring processes, commitment to serving children with disabilities, and leadership in serving children from diverse backgrounds all make it a model of a high-quality program and a foundational component of our early learning system.

Head Start’s history of evaluation, innovation, and self-improvement is just as extraordinary. It has been the subject of intensive research for five decades and much of what has been learned has been incorporated into the program through quality improvement.

Head Start has evolved over time in various ways to meet families’ needs for full-day or year-round programs or to respond to local community needs with innovative models. Program standards, monitoring, and professional development have all been revised based on research and evaluation. Most notably, the 2007 Congressional reauthorization of Head Start increased the focus on school readiness for children and established higher educational requirements for teachers. New assessment procedures require a review of teacher-child interactions, a critical component of any early education experience.

Drawing on this history, researchers have taken a careful look at what about Head Start works and what can be improved based on the findings of the recent national impact study and the broader Head Start research.

So why is there any debate at all regarding the effectiveness of Head Start?

The answer is simple—the impact study has been selectively mined for talking points.  The study found that right after leaving Head Start, children did better than their peers. It also found cognitive gains disappeared during the early elementary years. There are many possible reasons, including uneven quality in Head Start programs, uneven quality in elementary schools that poor children enter after Head Start, and the need for higher-intensity interventions than the 9-month Head Start program tested in the study. There is also much more to learn about how to sustain immediate gains for poor children over time.

Importantly, the study results do not necessarily mean that children won’t benefit later from Head Start. A robust body of research finds that while children in Head Start and other high-quality early education programs may lose immediate gains, they still experience improved outcomes later in life.  This is important:  the large payoffs to early education that researchers have found for high-quality programs in the form of increased education, employment, and earnings can happen even when there is no immediate evidence that children are doing better in school. Here too, we have more to learn.

As we deepen our understanding of the complexities of high-quality early education and its impacts, Head Start should continue its legacy of continuous quality improvement to respond to the needs of poor children. As with any program intended to advance outcomes for our children, we should learn and adapt as new research expands our knowledge base. But labeling the intervention a failure based on one study is neither sensible nor advantageous to preparing poor children for school, a goal that benefits everyone in the country.

But the biggest problem with the simplistic talking points framing the Head Start debate isn’t a selective reading of the research.  It is the distraction from what matters most:  the persistence of child poverty, which affects a quarter of our youngest children. The immediate impacts of Head Start are clear. We shouldn’t ignore or reject decades of reputable research.  Whether Head Start works isn’t close to the right question.  Instead, we should ask why only a fraction of eligible children are being served. Why, when we know what works, can we not make a significant investment to put a generation of young children in poverty on a better and brighter path?

It is our public will that we must question.

Hannah Matthews is the director of the Child Care and Early Education team at CLASP. She works at the federal and state levels on child care and early education promoting policies that support both healthy child development and the needs of low-income working parents.

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