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 misunderstandings about the value and effectiveness of Head Start.
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; for these kids there is a long-term, persistent achievement gap. They are overrepresented in statistics of reading failure and school dropout.
Head Start represents a national commitment to providing early learning opportunities for these vulnerable young children and comprehensive support to help their families achieve long-term stability and success. The Head Start premise is simple: Every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to reach full potential if given the opportunity.
Even so, pundits and some members of Congress have been critical, 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 compare them to children who were not assigned to the program. At a recent City Club Forum in Boise, a questioner cited this study as evidence that Head Start doesn’t work.
Here’s what the Impact Study found: Head Start children were better prepared for kindergarten in every aspect 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 third grade.
Many people are not aware of the flawed design of the Impact Study. Originally designed to compare progress of children enrolled in the program compared to children not attending Head Start, many children in the non-Head Start control group later enrolled in the program and received Head Start services — nearly half of the 3-year-olds in the control group attended Head Start when they were 4, 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. Edward Zigler, a Yale University professor and one of the most well-known early childhood 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: “The fade-out 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.
There is a lot of politically charged discussion around this flawed study, despite dozens of other studies that show very different results over the last 20 years. Since 2002, Head Start quality has continued to improve, and research has shown that gains in school readiness have continually progressed. Head Start was a high-quality program then and it is stronger now. The next time someone says Head Start doesn’t work and the benefits “fade out,” ask them to read some new research. I think they’ll be impressed.
Bill Foxcroft is the executive director of the Idaho Head Start Association, which includes the 13 Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Idaho serving 5,000 children.