Head Start's Benefits Are Short-Lived, A Three-Year Federal Study Concludes

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Head Start, the federal program for disadvantaged preschool children and their families, has a strong immediate impact on children's development, but its benefits tend to diminish over time, according to a new federal study.

The assessment, reached in a three-year study using the statistical technique called "meta-analysis," appears to contradict recent research showing long-term educational gains for children enrolled in such programs.

According to an executive summary of the new report, children who have attended Head Start programs "enjoy significant immediate gains in cognitive test scores, socio-emotional test scores, and health status." But cognitive and socio-emotional scores "do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start."

"The Impact of Head Start on Children, Families, and Communities" is the final report of the Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis, and Utilization Project, prepared for the Head Start Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by CSR Incorporated, a social-science research firm. The study was begun in 1982.

Publication of the report coincides with Head Start's 20th anniversary this year. Copies were sent to the Congress during the last week of August.

1,600 Documents

The federal study represents a statistical and analytical synthesis of more than 1,600 documents on Head Start, including policy statements, analyses of other early-childhood-education programs, and 210 research publications.

Using the "meta-analysis" approach, the researchers assigned numerical weights to factors in existing Head Start research that measure the impact of the program on children's cognitive and socio-emotional development, health, families, and communities.

"While Head Start is on the right path," the report concludes from the analysis, "the fact that differences diminish soon after Head Start indicates that even more program improvements are warranted."

Among its recommendations are that Head Start establish closer ties with elementary schools on curricular issues, to assure that its children continue to be exposed to learning activities consistent with their developmental levels.

In addition, the report calls for more effective partnerships between parents and Head Start teachers, more effective planning of classroom educational activities to give each child experiences appropriate to his or her developmental level, and greater emphasis on participants' school-readiness skills.

Clennie Murphy Jr., acting associate commissioner for the Head Start Bureau, writes in the foreword to the executive summary that the study's "insights into areas where further improvements can be made ... must be pursued during the next several years if children and parents are to realize maximum benefits from the program."

Latest Research

An outside expert in the field said last week that differences in methodology may explain the apparent discrepancy between some of the study's conclusions and findings from the latest research on preschool programs for disadvantaged children.

Last year, for example, the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, which conducted a 22-year study of such programs, reported that disadvantaged children who participate in high-quality preschool programs such as Head Start significantly outperform nonparticipants, and continue to have greater school and career success than children who have not taken part in such programs. (See Education Week, Sept. 19, 1984.)

But David P. Weikart, director of the High/Scope Foundation, said he is not surprised by the new report's findings. They prove, he said, that children reap short-term benefits from most early-childhood-education programs. But they also show that program quality is a significant factor in long-term success.

The message of the federal study, said Mr. Weikart, is not that Head Start has no lasting benefits, but that the quality of some programs must be raised. "There's more to a high-quality program than just opening doors," he said.

Mr. Weikart also said the research analyzed by the government study was not controlled enough, a factor that precluded findings showing long-lasting developmental gains.

"Most of the studies they looked at were not set up with random assignment of sample and a mix of systematic curricula and research closely associated with it over extended periods of time," he said. "We've seen over and over again in general social experiments, when samples aren't established very tightly, that there tends to be an indication of no long-term success."

Program Benefits

But while noting the absence of long-lasting benefits, the federal report also points to a number of short-term benefits enjoyed by Head Start children and their families.

The program has aided families, it says, by providing health, social, and educational services, and by linking low-income families with other services available in the community.

By increasing public awareness of poor families and the services they need, the program has also influenced the quality and availability of educational, economic, health-care, and social-service institutions in the community, the report says.

The study also found that former Head Start students are more likely to be promoted to the next grade in elementary school and less likely to be assigned to special-education classes. But this finding, the report says, is based on a small number of studies.

The report suggests that the school-performance finding may reflect the fact that Head Start students develop the "desired social competence" to adapt more readily to their school environment.

But it also notes that program changes in the 1970's--conversion of summer programs to full-year programs, initiation of training and technical-assistance components, implementation of performance standards, and establishment of the Child Development Associate credential for teachers--may have had positive effects on participants' cognitive performance.

Other Findings

Among the report's other findings:

  • Curricula. Highly structured academic curricula in Head Start programs produce significantly greater immediate gains than traditional, cognitive, or Montessori curricula. But three years after the completion of Head Start programs, the cognitive-performance effects of program participation appear small or negative or nonexistent.
  • Minority enrollment. Children from Head Start classes with a proportion of minority children in the 90 to 100 percent range exhibit smaller gains in achievement motivation than children from classes that are 70 to 90 percent minority.
  • Handicapped children. In general, programs are fulfilling the federal requirement to enroll handicapped students at a class ratio of at least 10 percent. Most of these students, however, have only mild impairments, such as speech and developmental disabilities. Only a small percentage are severely disabled, and many Head Start programs lack the specially trained teachers and individualized educational plans needed for instructing the handicapped.
  • Parental involvement. Though large numbers of parents participate in various paid and volunteer capacities in Head Start, levels of parental involvement are uneven, with a core group of parents often contributing a disproportionate share of time.
  • The program was found to have little effect on parents' attitudes toward the value of education.

  • Public schools. Head Start programs frequently maintain working relationships with local public schools through the sharing of school resources, joint staff training, and cooperative policy statements.

Vol. 05, Issue 02, Pages 1, 15

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