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Head Start Impact Study and Follow-up, 2000-2015

Project Overview

Head Start provides comprehensive early child development services to low-income children, their families, and communities. In 1998, Congress determined, as part of Head Start's reauthorization, that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) should conduct a national study to determine the impact of Head Start on the children it serves. In October 2000, DHHS awarded a contract to Westat in collaboration with the Urban Institute, American Institutes for Research, and Decision Information Resources to conduct this study through spring of the children’s first grade year. 

The National Head Start Impact Study has two primary goals. The first is to determine on a national basis how Head Start affects the school readiness of children participating in the program as compared to children not enrolled in Head Start. Does Head Start improve children's cognitive development, general knowledge, approaches to learning, social and emotional development, communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, and physical well-being? In addition, how does Head Start affect the lives of the families of children enrolled in the program?

The second goal of the study is to determine under which conditions Head Start works best and for which children. To meet this goal, the study will examine various factors that could affect the results of the Head Start program. These factors will include differences among children attending Head Start, differences in children's home environments, the different types of Head Start programs available (home or center-based, quality indicators such as staff ratio, curriculum, part- vs. full-day programs, one versus two years exposure), and the availability and quality of other child care and preschool programs in a particular area.

The National Head Start Impact Study is a longitudinal study that involves approximately 5,000 three and four year old preschool children across 84 nationally representative grantee/delegate agencies in communities where there are more eligible children and families than can be served by the program. The children participating were randomly assigned to either a treatment group (which had access to Head Start services) or a comparison group (which did not have access to Head Start services, but could receive other community resources).

Data collection began in the fall of 2002 and ended in spring 2006, following children through the spring of their first grade year. It includes in-person interviews with parents; in-person child assessments; direct observations of the quality of different early childhood care settings; and teacher ratings of children.

Data collection includes the following:

  • Individual child data in the areas related to school readiness, such as physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, language usage and emerging literacy, cognition and general knowledge;
  • Information pertaining to parenting practices, family resources and risk factors, demographic and socio-economic data, and family structure;
  • Information on structure, process, and quality of Head Start, child care, and school settings through first grade; and, Community level data relating to the availability and means of formal and informal family support services.

Third Grade Follow-up

In 2006, DHHS awarded another contract to Westat and its colleagues (Chesapeake Research Associates, Abt Associates, American Institutes for Research, the University of Virginia Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, AMSAQ) to follow the Head Start Impact Study children and their families through spring of their third grade year.

This follow-up will examine the following questions: What is the impact of Head Start on children’s well-being, and on parental practices that contribute to children’s well-being, through their third grade year? For whom and under what circumstances does Head Start have its greatest impact?

Data were collected when the children are in the third grade ( spring 2007 and spring 2008). Data were collected from the following sources: 1) the children’s teachers, 2) administrative data, 3) parents, 4) direct, face-to-face assessments and interviews with children, and 5) assessments of the quality of the schools that the children are attending. The domains of development to be studied include, but are not limited to:

  • Children’s cognitive development
  • Children’s school achievement and adjustment
  • Children’s socio-emotional functioning
  • Children’s health and access to health care
  • Children’s relationships with peers
  • Parents’ involvement in educational activities
  • The qualities of the schools and classrooms children attend
  • Parental mental health and well-being
  • Parental monitoring and other parenting practices
  • Demographic characteristics of the children, families, and schools
  • Other key aspects of child development, family functioning, or educational experience identified as relevant to this study.

Data are archived at the Child and Family Data Archive.

The points of contact for this project are Mary Bruce Webb, Christine Fortunato, and Nina Hetzner. 

Westat Project Director
Camilla Heid
Westat, Inc.
1650 Research Blvd.
Rockville, MD 20850

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