To the Editor:
Isabel V. Sawhill and Jon Baron’s implication that the recent “Head Start Impact Study” showed few positive effects from the preschool program requires further examination (“We Need a New Start for Head Start,” Commentary, March 3, 2010).
The report states unequivocally that the Head Start children outperformed the control group children by every single measure the study employed. This occurred even though the research was structured in a way that made such superior performance difficult to achieve to a statistically significant degree.
Of the children randomly selected as the Head Start group, 15 percent of the 3-year-olds and 20 percent of the 4-year-olds did not join the program. Among children in the control group, 60 percent attended preschool programs during the study’s first year; 17 percent of the 3-year-olds and 14 percent of the 4-year-olds were actually in Head Start programs outside the study. (The report gives findings both with and without adjustments for no-show and crossover children.) Control-group children also spent four to five more hours each week in preschool than did the Head Start group.
Despite the fact that the Head Start children did so well while they were in the program, the control group did catch up by the end of 1st grade. It is important to learn the reasons for this. One seems clear: The 3-year-olds in the control group had an extra year before they began kindergarten, during which 50 percent of them attended Head Start. Thus, in actuality, they were Head Start children in 1st grade, even though the study still considered them as being in the control group. Another possible reason is that many districts give extra attention to children who are less ready for school, and these efforts may partly explain why the control group caught up.
Rigorous, peer-reviewed studies over many years have shown that Head Start has brought about lifelong benefits to children and their communities. We can improve, however, and we look forward to learning ways to do so from the type of evidence-based studies Ms. Sawhill and Mr. Baron suggest.
National Head Start Association
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Head Start Study: A Closer Examination