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- What difference does Head Start make to key outcomes of development and learning for low-income children?
- What difference does Head Start make to parental practices that contribute to children’s school readiness?
- Under what circumstances does Head Start achieve the greatest impact?
In the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start, Congress directed the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to determine, on a national level, the impact of Head Start on the children it serves. This the first of two reports addressing that question by reporting on the impacts of Head Start on children and families during the children’s preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade years in two main areas:
1) Key child and parent outcomes, particularly as they apply to children’s school readiness
2) The circumstances under which Head Start might achieve the greatest impact.
The impact study found that providing access to Head Start has a positive impact on children’s preschool experiences. Access to Head Start also has positive impacts on several aspects of children’s school readiness during their time in the program. However, the advantages children gained during their time in Head Start and up to age 4 yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.
Selected subgroups of children (including children of parents with mild depressive symptoms, children who were dual language learners, and children with lower cognitive skills) showed patterns of favorable impacts, including favorable impacts through 1st grade in the cognitive, social-emotional, or health domains. There were also a few subgroups of children that showed patterns of unfavorable impacts, the most notable being three- year-olds whose parents reported moderate depressive symptoms.
This study complies with Congress’s mandate in the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start that DHHS determine, on a national level, the impact of Head Start on the children it serves. It addresses the question of what difference Head Start makes to child and parent outcomes, specifically as they relate to children’s school readiness. It also addresses the question of whether certain subgroups of children and families benefit more or less than others.
This study contributes to the research body on early childhood programs by utilizing a randomized control design, including a representative sample of programs and children, and examining a comprehensive set of outcomes over time.
Key Findings and Highlights
- Providing access to Head Start has a positive impact on children’s preschool experiences. There are statistically significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on every aspect of children’s preschool experiences measured in this study.
- Access to Head Start has positive impacts on several aspects of children’s school readiness during their time in the program.
- For the 4-year-old group, benefits at the end of the Head Start year were concentrated in language and literacy elements of the cognitive domain. There was also an impact on access to dental care in the health domain.
- For the 3-year-old group, benefits were found in all four domains examined at the end of their time in Head Start and up to age 4.
- The advantages children gained during their time in Head Start and up to age 4 yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.
- Cognitive Outcomes. By the end of 1st grade, only a single cognitive impact was found for each cohort.
- Social-Emotional Outcomes. By the end of 1st grade, there was some evidence that the Head Start group in the 3-year-old cohort had closer and more positive relationships with their parents than the control group. These impacts were preceded by other social-emotional impacts in the earlier years.
- Health Outcomes. For the 4-year-old cohort, there was an impact on child health insurance coverage at the end of 1st grade.
- Parenting Outcomes. For the 3-year-old cohort, there were favorable impacts on use of time-out and authoritarian parenting at the end of 1st grade. Specifically, those favorable impacts consisted of less use of time out and spanking. For the 4-year-old cohort, there were no significant parenting practices impacts in 1st grade.
The study uses a nationally representative sample of 84 grantee/delegate agencies. 5,000 newly entering, eligible 3- and 4-year-old children were randomly assigned to either:
- A Head Start group that had access to Head Start program services or;
- A control group that did not have access to Head Start, but could enroll in other early childhood programs or non-Head Start services selected by their parents
The study was designed to separately examine two cohorts of children, newly entering 3- and 4-year-olds. This design reflects the hypothesis that different program impacts may be associated with different age of entry into Head Start. Consequently, the study included two separate samples:
- A newly entering 3-year-old group (to be studied through two years of Head Start participation (i.e., Head Start year and age 4 year), kindergarten, and 1st grade), and;
- A newly entering 4-year-old group (to be studied through one year of Head Start participation, kindergarten, and 1st grade).
Data collection began in fall 2002 and continued through 2006, following children from program application through the spring of their 1st grade year. Additional data were collected, following the children through third grade a reported in Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report
Many important questions about Head Start remain unanswered for future research to address. These questions include, among others:
- Is there a benefit to having two years of Head Start rather than one year?
- What types of programs, centers, classrooms, and other experiences relate to impacts that are more positive for children and families?
- What accounts for the subgroup patterns observed in this report?
- Are there some later experiences that help to sustain impacts through the early elementary grades?
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (January 2010). Head Start Impact Study. Final Report. Washington, DC.