Head Start FAQ

It took nearly half a century before researchers got around to rigorously evaluating Head Start, a nationally funded pre-k program for disadvantaged children. The much-awaited Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) has now followed chosen participants up until 3rd grade, reporting results twice along the way. The first report in 2010 found that there had been positive effects just following the program but that these effects had largely dissipated (“faded-out”) by the end of 1st grade (Puma, 2010). The second report in 2012 did not bring any redeeming results (Puma, 2012). This was understandably disheartening, leaving supporters dismayed and critics up in arms. Soon, articles popped up in every major newspaper condemning Head Start and even calling for its immediate termination. While people are right to be concerned by this first randomized, controlled step in understanding the effect of Head Start, what is more concerning is that many are prepared to throw out a half a century old, $180 billion program after a single inconclusive study. This is especially problematic because (1) there are major limitations to the study design (2) many successful small-scale programs also showed initial fade-out effects (3) non-experimental studies of Head Start suggest positive long-term impacts. In other words, it is highly possible that HSIS is simply inaccurate or needs to be continued longer before showing positive results.

"What do the results from HSIS determine about Head Start?"

According to the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS), the first randomized controlled trial of the program, all positive effects faded by 3rd grade. While results have been disheartening, HSIS has a host of limitations that must be considered. To begin with, it compares apples to apples: Over 60% of control children either attended alternate preschool programs or were accepted into Head Start through a later lottery while 18% of students in the treatment group chose not to attend Head Start at all. These factors dilute any gains achieved by Head Start. Another limitation is that the study cannot control for the different amounts of attention children receive when they enter elementary school. Since control children were behind at the end of the program, it is possible that teachers worked to catch them up. But even in the highly unlikely case that these factors do not affect reported results, it is still possible that we will observe positive effects emerge at later years. The truly remarkable impacts of Perry and Abecedarian were not seen until much later in the lives of participants. Also, while HSIS is in its early stages, there are numerous long-term, quasi-experimental studies that find Head Start children to attend more years of schooling, earn higher incomes, live healthier, and engage less in criminal behavior. Considering this, it is especially important that we see HSIS through before condemning Head Start.

"Are there any studies besides HSIS that can tell us about Head Start?"

Despite the emphasis placed on HSIS, there are in fact many long-term, creative, quasi-experimental Head Start studies we can gain insight from. Similar to Perry and Abecedarian, these studies find Head Start children to attend more years of schooling, earn higher incomes, live healthier, and engage less in criminal behavior. One often-cited study from the National Bureau of Economic Research used the Panel Study of Income Dynamics survey (PSID). The PSID has been administered to 18,000 individuals (4,802 households) since 1968 and the 1995 questionnaire happened to ask whether individuals attended Head Start. Based on this, researchers found 4,000 adults to focus in on. This group was composed of participants of Head Start and a control group of siblings who did not attend Head Start. (Garces, 2000) Researchers chose to use siblings in order to limit variations in environment between the control and treatment groups (even HSIS does not do this). What researchers could not address was that (1) children were non-randomly selected into Head Start and (2) there could have been recall error by the participants when filling out the PSID. The first point is largely true with HSIS as well and the second point seems contrived as it is hard to imagine a substantial number of participants simply forgetting that they attended (or did not attend) Head Start. Thus, it is well worth giving results from this study weight in our discussion: Head Start participants were 9% more likely to complete high school. Among white participants, this number was closer to 30%. White participants were also 28% more likely to attend college than siblings who attended no preschool and 20% more likely than those who attended an alternate preschool. African American participants also showed greater educational attainment and were 12% less likely to have been involved with criminal activity that their siblings. (Garces, 2000) Overall, measured results were substantial and bode well for HSIS. Another noteworthy study conducted by Ludwig and Miller used a different but equally creative approach to overcome selection bias. They looked to the discontinuity in Head Start funding across counties to find effects of the program at the county level. The reason there was a discontinuity in funding is that the Office of Economic Opportunity provided grant-writing assistance for the 300 poorest counties in 1960, resulting in 50-100% higher funding rates in counties that barely made the 300 compared with counties right above that threshold. This small difference was smoothed before the start of the program, meaning these two groups of counties were at the same poverty levels but had very different access to Head Start. Ludwig and Miller found evidence for a half-year increase in schooling attainment and 15% increase in likelihood of attending college within the Head Start heavy counties. They even found a substantial decrease in mortality in these counties. (Ludwig, 2008) Overall, researchers aggregating these non-experimental but still rigorous studies suggest that benefits do outweigh the costs of Head Start at a ratio as large as 7-to-1. (Ludwig, 2008) While it is reasonable to argue that these studies cannot be given the same weight as a randomized, controlled trial, it would be foolish to ignore them completely. At the very least they should serve as a reason to continue HSIS. Continuing would not be a blind walk but rather a walk looking to confirm steps already taken.

"Do we have any reasons to believe that positive effects can re-emerge at later years?"

But even in the highly unlikely case that these limitations do not hinder the reported results from perfectly reflecting reality, it is still possible that we will observe positive effects emerge at later years of HSIS. The hope for this comes from observing the impressive outcomes —despite initial fadeout— seen in small-scale, long-term studies such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. Perry Preschool was a randomized, controlled high-quality program run in the early 1960s. Children who won a coin toss were given 2.5 hours of teaching each weekday morning for two years (Schweinhart, 2005). These children, along with a control group, have now been followed for almost 50 years. Analyzing questionnaires and records, researchers found that participants were less likely to be arrested, earned substantially higher incomes and attended an average of almost 1 full year more of school (Schweinhart, 2005). They needed an average of 1.3 years fewer of special education services and were 26% less likely to receive government assistance (Social Programs That Work). The Carolina Abecedarian Project was also conducted in the 60s and was even more intensive, involving a center-based child care service from birth to age 5 for 8 hours a day (Currie, 2001). Similar to Perry, researchers found a host of positive long-run effects. One particularly striking result was that, at age 21, treatment children were twice as likely to be attending a four-year college (Currie, 2001). When referring to Perry Preschool, Abecedarian, and other studies like it, people tend to focus their attention on these extremely promising long-term results. It is forgotten that many of these studies saw achievement test scores fall greatly in magnitude right after the intervention. In fact, both Perry Preschool and Abecedarian did not show any IQ results after just a year following the program. When questioned, Perry researchers suggested that this may have more to do with the way in which we test for improvement than the amount of improvement itself (Schweinhart, 2005). Regardless of the reason for this fade-out, it is important to consider that the same studies that are famously successful and fuel the excitement surround ECE were once in the same boat that HSIS is in now. Therefore, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions and instead be patient until we gain long-term observations from HSIS as well.