Participation in Head Start has positive effects on children’s learning while they are in the program, but most of that advantage disappears by the end of 1st grade, a federal study of Head Start programs says.
A randomized controlled study of nearly 5,000 low-income children released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last week shows that a group of children who entered Head Start at age 4 benefited from a year in the program—particularly in learning language and literacy—compared with children of the same age who were eligible for Head Start but didn’t enroll in it. Benefits included learning vocabulary, letter-word recognition, spelling, color identification, and letter naming.
The learning advantages for children who entered Head Start at age 3 were even stronger. By the end of Head Start, that group showed gains in most of the language and learning areas that the 4-year-old group had, but also showed benefits in learning math, prewriting skills, and perceptual motor skills.
However, by the end of 1st grade, the study found, children who had attended Head Start had an edge in only one aspect of learning in comparison with control groups. Children in the Head Start 4-year-old group did significantly better on vocabulary than children in the control group. Head Start participants in the 3-year-old group performed better on oral comprehension than children in the study’s control group.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, whose agency oversees the federal preschool program, said in a statement about the study that for Head Start to achieve its full potential, we must improve its quality and promote high standards across all early-childhood programs.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Head Start Pupils’ Gains Found to Fade