I have heard many, many comments over the last couple of months about a study released in December, 2012 on the impact of Head Start (the OPRE report). I have heard from various commentators that this study proves that Head Start does not work, that it has no impact on the children we serve. And yet this could not be further from the truth.
If one reads the study that these commentators refer to, they will find the report full of positive comments about Head Start. Here is one:
“There were statistically significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on every measure of children’s preschool experiences measured in this study.”
It also states that “The differences in magnitude were quite large, driven in part by the large proportion of children in the control group who were in parent care (i.e. nearly four out of ten children remained at home with their parents when Head Start was unavailable to them). Yet, analyses excluding those children, and thus comparing only children in Head Start and control groups who were in non-parental care, largely showed the same pattern of differences, albeit somewhat smaller.” Differences on every measure. The differences were quite large. These are just a few of the many positive findings throughout the study.
I am using the very study that is being cited as showing that Head Start does not work, and it clearly shows how well it does work! Critics however have latched onto the fact that the study shows that the positive impacts of Head Start seem to disappear by the third grade. Let us think about this finding for a moment...
This study shows that Head Start children, in one or two years of service provision, receiving a half-day of services over the school year, had significantly positive impacts versus a similar demographic control group. But, over the course of three full years of schooling after the fact, their gains diminish. The study states that after leaving Head Start “the study children attended schools with much higher levels of poverty than schools nationwide with higher proportions of minority students.” In addition to the schools that these children attend, we must remember that they are members of families who are below the Federal poverty level. They do not have the resources at home that many of us who are fortunate have to continue to support their children’s education after they leave preschool. We all remember that parents are the number one teacher, right?
I am not writing these things to blame elementary schools or parents for the results of this study. These groups do as much as they can for the children they love, and face immense obstacles that we must continue to help eliminate. My point is that what we become as adults is not because of some magical year or two in our lives as children. It is the combination of educational experiences throughout our childhood; flowing from our parents, each of our schools, and the communities where we live. To suddenly expect Head Start to maintain gains well after children have moved on to other schools and the rest of their lives seems ridiculous to me.
Up to this point I have commented exclusively on the study that is cited itself. But another point that critics neglect is that there are hundreds of other studies that show Head Start’s positive impacts well beyond the 3rd grade, and in fact into adulthood. The OPRE report itself states that “we do not yet know if there will be positive outcomes for HSIS (Head Start Impact Study) participants later in life, however, research suggests that positive outcomes later in life are possible.” These studies consistently show that Head Start impacts include higher educational attainment, higher earnings, crime reduction, less use of public assistance, and lower mortality rates, to name a few. Just one example of these studies was produced by Harvard’s David Deming. His study found that Head Start’s long-term impact “is about 80 percent as large as the gains from the Perry Preschool and Carolina Abecedarian” programs. These programs are viewed as two of the most effective preschools in the country! Head Start costs about one-third as much.
I invite readers to do a web search on “Head Start Impact.” You will find lots of commentary on the OPRE study, many that use it to point out that Head Start does not work. You will also find lots of results leading you to other studies that contradict the OPRE study. Read the OPRE study and some of these other studies and form your own opinions. I am confident that you will feel as I do, that the incredible work that our Head Start program does is a fantastic investment in our children and our nation’s future.