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- What is the impact of Head Start on key outcomes of development and learning for low-income children?
- What is the impact of Head Start on children’s school readiness and parental practices that support children’s development and school readiness?
- Under what circumstances does Head Start achieve its greatest impact? What works for which children, and what Head Start services are most related to impact?
In the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start, Congress mandated that the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) determine, on a national level, the impact of Head Start on the children it serves. The study addressing that mandate examined impacts for children at the end of Head Start and at the end of third grade – the subject of this report. The report examines these longer-term effects of Head Start in two main areas:
- The difference Head Start makes to key outcomes of development and learning (and in particular, the multiple domains of school readiness) for low-income children. Similarly, what difference does Head Start make to parental practices that contribute to children’s school readiness?
- The specific circumstances under which Head Start achieves the greatest impact: What works for which children? What Head Start services are most related to impact? The report also touches on the impact of Head Start on children’s educational experiences.
Overall, the impact study found that there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children. There is evidence that for some outcomes, Head Start had a differential impact for some subgroups of children over others.
This study complies with Congress’s mandate in the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start that the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) determine, on a national level, the impact of Head Start on the children it serves. It works to answer the questions 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.
Key Findings and Highlights
- Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.
- In terms of children’s cognitive outcomes, access to Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children who entered at age 3 and a single impact for children who entered at age 4.
- Findings related to children’s social-emotional development differed by age cohort and by the person describing the child’s behavior.
- For children who entered at age 4, there were no observed impacts through the end of kindergarten but favorable impacts reported by parents and unfavorable impacts reported by teachers emerged at the end of 1st and 3rd grades. One unfavorable impact on the children’s self-report emerged at the end of 3rd grade.
- For children who entered at age 3 there were favorable impacts on parent-reported social emotional outcomes in the early years of the study that continued into early elementary school. However, there were no impacts on teacher-reported measures of social-emotional development for the 3-year-old cohort at any data collection point or on the children’s self-reports in 3rd grade.
- In the health domain, early favorable impacts were noted for both age cohorts, but by the end of 3rd grade, there were no remaining impacts for either age cohort.
- With regard to parenting practices, the impacts were concentrated in the younger cohort. For the 4-year-old cohort, there was one favorable impact across the years while there were several favorable impacts on parenting approaches and parent-child activities and interactions (all reported by parents) across the years for the 3-year-old cohort.
- There is evidence that for some outcomes, Head Start had a differential impact for some subgroups of children over others.
- At the end of 3rd grade for those who entered at age 3, the most striking sustained subgroup findings were found in the cognitive domain for children from high risk households as well as for children of parents who reported no depressive symptoms.
- Among those who entered at age 4, sustained benefits were experienced by children of parents who reported mild depressive symptoms, severe depressive symptoms, and Black children.
The Head Start Impact Study included a nationally representative sample of 84 grantee/delegate agencies and nearly 5,000 newly entering, eligible 3- and 4-year-old children who were randomly assigned to either: (1) a Head Start group that had access to Head Start program services or (2) 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. Data collection began in fall 2002 and continued through 2008, following children from program application through the spring of their 1st grade year.
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. Differential impacts are of particular interest in light of a trend of increased enrollment of the 3-year-olds in some grantee/delegate agencies presumably due to the growing availability of preschool options for 4-year-olds. 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, 1st grade, and 3rd grade), and a newly entering 4-year-old group (to be studied through one year of Head Start participation, kindergarten and 1st grade, and 3rd grade).
This study is unique in its design and differs from prior evaluations of early childhood programs due to the following characteristics: randomized control, a representative sample of programs and children, and the examination of a comprehensive set of outcomes over time.
Mike Puma, Stephen Bell, Ronna Cook, Camilla Heid, Pam Broene, Frank Jenkins, Andrew Mashburn, and Jason Downer (2012). Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study Final Report, OPRE Report # 2012-45, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.