Whether Head Start has long-lasting benefits for children has been an issue of considerable debate among both educators and government officials for years.
Findings from a new study by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., released last month, are unlikely to resolve the debate. The study, begun in the late 1980s and completed in the late '90s, found evidence that the program can help some children—particularly girls— succeed in school and avoid crime as they grow up. But the researchers found no such effects for boys.
Earlier studies of the popular federal preschool program have produced mixed results, with some finding only short-term payoffs or almost none at all. Other research has concluded that the benefits begin to fade once children are in the elementary grades.
In the foundation's study, which was conducted in Colorado and Florida, researchers tracked children who were eligible to attend Head Start in the 1970s. Roughly half did attend; the other half did not. Researchers were able to reach and interview 77 percent of the original sample, or 622 people, at age 22.
The researchers found that in Florida, 95 percent of the women who had attended Head Start had graduated from high school or earned a General Educational Development diploma, compared with 81 percent of those who had not participated. Also in Florida, only 5 percent of the Head Start women had ever been arrested, compared with 15 percent of the non-Head Start group. The study found no significant benefits for men on those measures.
Significant benefits were not found in Colorado, but the researchers said that may have been due to socioeconomic differences between groups there.
The researchers also wanted to compare their High/Scope educational approach, which encourages children to initiate their own learning activities, with the standard Head Start curriculum. Half the group that attended Head Start took part in the High/Scope program, while the rest did not.
The High/Scope group had a higher grade point average throughout school and had fewer than half as many criminal convictions as the group without High/Scope, the study found.
The foundation is best known for its work on the High/Scope Perry Preschool study, a longitudinal project that began in 1962 with 123 poor children. Tracking them through age 27, the researchers found that, overall, those in the program had fewer arrests and better educational outcomes than those not assigned to the program.
Order the report from High/Scope.
Vol. 20, Issue 4, Page 6