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Head Start's Benefits 'Substantial,' Study Finds

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Preliminary results of a government-sponsored assessment of Head Start programs appear to confirm the view of their proponents that they produce "substantial gains" in children's cognitive and language development.

The findings also indicate that, over the years, the most needy children have benefited most.

The assessment--"The Head Start Synthesis, Evaluation, and Utilization Project"--is being developed by csr Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based research group, for the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services. The research group is in the process of summarizing more than 1,500 reports on Head Start covering the period between its first year, 1965, and the present.

The preliminary findings were reported in the August-September edition of Human Development News by Raymond C. Collins and Dennis Deloria of hhs's administration for children, youth, and families.

Needy Benefited Most

The "most needy" children--those from single-parent families, those whose mothers had a 10th-grade education or less, or those who entered the program with low initial cognitive scores--benefited most from Head Start, according to the preliminary findings.

The findings indicate, according to the hhs report, that Head Start's impact on children's intellectual development was "roughly twice" as great after 1970 as in the first five years of the program.

The report attributes the increased effectiveness of the program to improvements introduced in 1970 and 1972; during those years, Head Start shifted from summer to full-year programs, performance standards were implemented, a training program for Head Start staff was introduced, and at least 10 percent of pupils in the preschool programs were required to be children diagnosed as handicapped.

"At first, dealing with handicapped students was a burden," Mr. Collins said. "The program lacked the resources and the know-how. But the introduction of handicapped students forced Head Start to come to grips with the notion of individualization of instruction," which has been beneficial in working with all students in the program, he added. (Today, about 12 percent of children in the Head Start program are handicapped.)

The preliminary findings also indicate that:

Children in "mixed" classrooms--where 26 percent to 89 percent of the group were minority children--showed almost twice the gains of children in classes consisting almost totally of minority preschoolers.

While children who participated in Head Start programs fared better in school than comparable children who did not, "at no assessment interval were their gains large enough to enable the average poor and minority child to equal the performance of the average middle-class child in school or on standardized tests." The report notes that this was true "for research-oriented preschool programs that have otherwise displayed impressive longterm gains."

Children diagnosed as speech-impaired performed better on cognitive tests than other children with the same handicap who did not attend Head Start programs, and children with learning disabilities or emotional disturbances who attended also performed better on some measures of intellectual achievement. But the report notes that "Head Start did not appear to have a measurable effect on the cognitive development of mentally retarded or physically handicapped children."

Children who had participated in Head Start programs were found to be more aggressive and more attention-seeking, but also more sociable and assertive, than students who did not attend Head Start programs.

After receiving Head Start services, children generally improved in physical development and motor control. They were also more likely to be of normal height and weight, to have fewer absences from school, and to perform better on physical tests than students who did not enroll in Head Start, the report says.

The findings also reveal that Head Start programs have had a "positive impact" on families and communities by encouraging parental involvement, providing jobs and services, and encouraging coordination of community social services.

The hhs assessment project will continue to review studies until the fall of 1984. The research firm plans to produce 12 reports--five on policy matters, five measuring the outcomes of programs, an annotated bibliography, and a review of the literature about Head Start, with a compilation of related Congressional documents. Four of the reports--including the bibliography and a study of the effect of Head Start on cognitive development--are expected to be released later this year.

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