Education Commentary

Re-Examining Head Start: Is Success or Failure Due to ‘Home Start’?

By Howard B. Richman — October 21, 1992 8 min read

In 1969, a review of Head Start achievement pronounced the program a failure. In 1992, after two controlled studies of preschool education, the President and his Democratic challenger both propose greatly boosting the funding for this preschool program, and three states, New York, Maryland, and Arizona, have just lowered their beginning compulsory-school ages. Is Head Start a great failure or a great success? Let’s look at the evidence.

Head Start began in 1965 as one of President Johnson’s Great Society programs. The idea was to provide a stimulating nursery-school environment for 3- and 4-year-old poor children. A competing idea, Home Start, designed to improve the home environment, was given short shrift. Head Start was more popular, perhaps because it provided free day care.

Head Start was based on the theory that most of a child’s I.Q. develops when he is very young. The teachers in the Head Start programs worked very hard to boost the children’s intelligence and beginning reading skills. They were able to boost the children’s I.Q. scores so that they would score higher on a test that was administered right after the conclusion of the program. Many students continued to achieve at a higher level in the early grades of school. But when the children were followed into upper elementary school, all of the gains disappeared. The I.Q. scores and achievement-test scores fell to the level of children who had not participated in Head Start. Almost every study of early-childhood education has shown the same thing--preschool does not affect children’s eventual I.Q. scores or achievement-test scores.

Based upon these results, a Westinghouse evaluation in 1969 concluded that Head Start was not having any long-term effects on success in school. Nevertheless, dedicated researchers continued to experiment with early-childhood-education programs, and finally two studies of the 70’s and 80’s which randomly assigned children to preschool groups and control groups produced payoffs, but not in éŸñŸ scores. One was Gray’s Early Training project in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the other was the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich.

The surprising aspect was that the payoff appeared long after gains in I.Q. scores and achievement-test scores disappeared. When the children who had participated in the programs grew up, they had lower dropout rates than a control group, higher levels of employment, college, or job training, and fewer arrests by age 19. The post-high-school effects could be related to the lower dropout rate, but what caused the lower dropout rate? Let’s look at the two studies.

First, the Murfreesboro study. The program was for black children ages 3 1/2 to 4 1/2. Like the Ypsilanti program it combined elements of both Head Start and Home Start. It consisted of a 10-week preschool during the summer followed by home visits for 60 minutes each week throughout the school year. Before the program, the average I.Q. of the participants was 89 (two points higher than the control group). At age 5, just after they participated in the program, their average I.Q. was up to 96. By age 17, their average I.Q. was down to 79 (again two points higher than the control group), and yet only 22 percent of the participants dropped out of high school, compared with 43 percent in the control group. A search for intervening variables to explain how such effects could occur after all measurable gains in achievement and I.Q. had disappeared revealed at least two factors which cemented the early success of the Head Start participants. The Head Start children were less likely to be classified as handicapped in the early grades and less likely to be retained in the early grades. Let’s look closely at handicapped classification.

When low-I.Q. children enter 1st grade, they face a very high risk of being classified as retarded or learning disabled. Unfortunately, such labels carry a stigma. A child’s playmates may call him or her a “Sped’’ or some other pejorative term. The label can even affect the child’s self-concept. When children who have been labeled get old enough, they tend to drop out in disproportionate numbers. But if a student’s I.Q., as measured by a test, is artificially high when he or she enters 1st grade, the student will not be classified as handicapped, at least not right away. If the school has a special-education class to fill, some other student will be chosen, perhaps some student from the control group who didn’t participate in Head Start. In the Murfreesboro study, only 2 percent of the Head Start group were eventually classified as handicapped, while 24 percent of the control group were so classified.

A look at the Ypsilanti study reveals a similar picture. The Ypsilanti program was for disadvantaged 3- to 4-year-old children with I.Q.'s which pretested between 70 and 85. It featured half-day Head Start sessions for five days a week, combined with home visits by the teachers for 90 minutes each week. Since the mother had to be home during the day to meet with the visiting teacher, the researchers preassigned children of working mothers to the control group. Only 9 percent of the Head Start group had working mothers, while 31 percent of the control group had working mothers (not exactly a random sample). As in the Murfreesboro study, the Ypsilanti study produced a short-term boost in the children’s I.Q. scores which disappeared by 2nd grade. The 1st-grade teachers were aware of the I.Q. scores of the Head Start children and the control children. They were also aware of which children had participated in Head Start. They rated the children who had been in Head Start as showing more “academic potential.’'

Special-education placement also showed the same pattern as the Murfreesboro study. Only 15 percent of the Head Start group were ever classified as retarded, versus 35 percent of the control group. If the Head Start group needed help because they were falling behind in school subjects, they were more often given remedial help, while if the control group fell behind, they were more often classified as mentally retarded and given special-education services.

In short, because these preschool programs temporarily raised children’s I.Q.'s and achievement, the participating children avoided early retentions and early placement in special education. Later, they had less of a tendency to drop out, and a greater chance to succeed after high school. What would have been the result if low-I.Q. children were given artificially high I.Q.-test scores? The dropout rate might have been reduced at no cost to the taxpayer. Such a procedure, however, would be deemed unethical. But there are at least three ethical and inexpensive ways to keep at-risk children out of special education.

One alternative would be to stop paying school districts to produce handicapped children. The state of Pennsylvania has dramatically reduced the numbers of children being classified as handicapped through a simple change in funding that stops paying school districts extra money for each handicapped child. As in any other area of government funding, you get what you pay for.

Another would be to urge parents to hold at-risk children out of school for an extra year so that they would start school a little older than the norm. It turns out that children who start school a little old for their grade are less likely to be classified as handicapped than children who start school young for their grade. This phenomenon is known among learning-disabilities researchers as the “birthdate effect.’'

A third would be to adopt a primary-schools-without-failure goal. The idea would be to give children who had not attended preschool a chance to catch up before we begin to mark children for failure.

There is another reason to be cautious before placing too many eggs in the preschool-education basket. We still don’t know whether the Murfreesboro and Ypsilanti projects succeeded because of their Head Start components or their Home Start components. It would be a shame to put lots of money into preschools if only changes in the home environment are effective. It may be that we ought to have more Home Start programs.

There is also a destructive side to preschool that must be carefully avoided. If you try to push academics on children before they are ready, it can backfire. Frustration can turn the child off school before he even starts 1st grade. This may have led to delinquent-behavior discrepancies researchers found in 1986 when they compared three different types of Head Start. One type called “cognitive’’ was aimed at improving I.Q. scores, another type called “unit based’’ was like a traditional preschool, the third type called “language training’’ pushed reading skills using a direct-instruction approach. It turned out that at age 15 the children who had been in the “language training’’ group reported engaging in twice as many delinquent acts as were reported by students who had participated in the other groups.

Another danger would be to promote preschool programs at the expense of mothers who stay home with their own children. Some legislators would even like to make preschool compulsory. Yet, a 1990 study of the preschool histories of Texas 3rd graders found that the more a child had been cared for by others than his or her parents, the worse that child behaved in school, and the worse his or her report-card grades. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, the authors of Better Late Than Early and School Can Wait, have argued that we are rushing our children out of the home and into schools before most, particularly boys, are ready. Their thesis has been supported by a wide variety of studies. For example, the Murfreesboro study, despite its showing of positive effects on girls, produced no positive effects for the boys who participated.

So, is Head Start a success or failure? Maybe the answer is both. Head Start programs do not produce long-term gains in either achievement or I.Q. If our goal is to improve the achievement of American children or to improve America’s competitiveness with other countries, then Head Start may be a failure. On the other hand, if our goal is to help the particular children who are involved in the program, it can be a success. Some children who participated got a head start which helped them avoid failure in the first grades of school. This eventually reduced their dropout rate and helped them approach the job market.

Whoever is elected President will put lots of new money into Head Start. While this may help some children, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we are solving the problems of our educational system.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 edition of Education Week as Re-Examining Head Start: Is Success or Failure Due to ‘Home Start’?