New study examines impact of Head Start through third grade; Second report details student demographics, parent satisfaction

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released a report today examining the effects of Head Start on a child’s cognitive and academic, health, emotional and social development into elementary school.  The study suggests that while the Head Start study participants in 2002 showed greater skills than a control group of peers after a year in the early childhood program, by the time the students reach third grade, there was no significant difference between the two groups.

The Head Start Impact Study randomly assigned children to two groups: one group that would be offered access to Head Start for that year and one group that would not.  The researchers assessed the children and interviewed their parents and their teachers to monitor the children’s developmental progress.  The Head Start group showed significant advantages in multiple areas of development at the end of one year of Head Start participation. 

In a first-grade follow up study with the same children, however, there was little difference between the group offered access to Head Start and the control group.  ACF voluntarily extended the research to re-examine the same children in third grade, where the trend continued.  While the Head Start group showed marked improvement compared to the control group at 4 and 5 years old, by the time they were 8 or 9, they were, on average, indistinguishable from their peers.

“Head Start provides these children with the tools they need to overcome significant hardship,” said Head Start Director Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes.  “Children who entered the program 10 years ago clearly benefited from their Head Start experience.   The reforms of the last four years will ensure Head Start is doing more, so the benefits will be greater and last longer.”

The Head Start Impact Study assessed the benefit to children of attending Head Start in 2002-2003.  Consequently, the impact of reforms implemented over the last four years, through both the Office of Head Start and the Dept. of Education, are not reflected in this study. The most significant reform is requiring Head Start centers that are not conducting high quality programs  to compete with other potential providers for continued federal funds. Head Start has also teamed up with the Department of Education to administer the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, which incentivizes high quality and accountable early learning programs. 

“This report underscores the imperative for reform and for improving instruction from preschool to third grade,” Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Deb Delisle said.  “Through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the Obama administration is working to both strengthen preschool programs—so that they promote school success—and to expand access to high-quality early learning programs from birth through third grade.  High quality early learning programs have proven to be one of the best long-term investments we can make in our children’s future.”

A separate report also released by ACF today—the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES)--details the challenges many Head Start families face.  One-third of Head Start students live with a parent who is unemployed and/or has less than a high school education. Fourteen percent of Head Start children have an identified disability such as speech or language impairments.

The FACES study, which looked at children who entered Head Start in the Fall of 2009, showed high levels of parent satisfaction with the program. Both parents and teachers reported children showing significant growth in social skills by end of the first year, and teachers reported fewer “problem behaviors” after one year. Children assessed in English demonstrated progress toward national norms across developmental areas.

“ACF is committed to using evidence for program improvement, and these reports reflect that,” said George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families. “We know that Head Start, with its strong family supports and parent engagement programs, successfully helps children from low-income families be better prepared for school. We are committed to working with the Department of Education to ensure a coordinated system of high-quality early learning and development programs through elementary school.”

View the full 3rd Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study report and the executive summary of the report.

View the FACES study.

Learn more about Head Start.

Back to Top