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Head Start Gains Found to Wash Out by 3rd Grade

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 08, 2013 3 min read
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While Head Start benefited children’s learning and development during their time in the federally financed preschool program, those advantages had mostly vanished by the end of 3rd grade, a new federal study finds.

In the final phase of a large-scale, randomized, controlled study of nearly 5,000 children from low-income families, researchers found that the positive effects on literacy and language development demonstrated by children who entered Head Start at age 4 had dissipated by the end of 3rd grade, and that they were, on average, academically indistinguishable from their peers who had not been in Head Start.

The new findings, released last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are consistent with an earlier phase of the study that showed most benefits of Head Start participation had faded by the end of 1st grade.The $8 billion Head Start program serves nearly 1 million low-income children.

Researchers examined a nationally representative sample of Head Start programs. The children involved in the study, who all were eligible for the preschool services based on family income, were assigned by lottery to a group that had access to Head Start services or to a control group that could not participate in Head Start but could enroll in other early-childhood programs.

The national study—which Congress mandated in 1998—consists of two age cohorts: 3- and 4-year-old children who entered Head Start for the first time in 2002. Congress ordered the study to examine the impacts through the end of 1st grade; the HHS extended it through 3rd grade.

The study’s release, which had been delayed, comes at a tense time for Head Start. More than 132 longtime grantees who provide services must compete with other bidders to retain their funding, part of an Obama administration effort to improve program quality. These results won’t be announced until spring.

Benefits Wane

In the study’s first phase, a group of children who entered Head Start at age 4 saw added benefits from spending one year in the program, including learning vocabulary, letter-word recognition, spelling, color identification, and letter-naming, compared with children of the same age in a control group who didn’t attend Head Start. For children who entered Head Start at age 3, the gains were even greater. The second phase of the study showed that those gains had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their control-group peers.

In the final phase, “there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rdgrade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group,” the researchers write.

“We’ve seen this movie before with the 1st grade results and now at the end of 3rd grade,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “There are clear signals here that we need some innovative policies around the delivery of services.”

By the end of 3rd grade, those in the 4-year-old cohort showed only a single academic advantage—performance on a reading assessment—over their control-group peers. No significant positive effects were seen on math skills, prewriting, grade promotion, or teachers’ reports of children’s school accomplishments.

Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said the 3rd grade findings still leave questions unanswered about variation in the amount of time children spent in the Head Start classrooms and in the quality of the learning experiences for children in both Head Start and other early-childhood programs. About 40 percent of the children in the control group did not receive formal preschool services; the rest did, just not through Head Start.

Researchers found significant differences for the two age groups in children’s social-emotional development. Parents of Head Start participants in the 4-year-old cohort reported less aggressive behavior in their children at the end of 3rd grade than did the parents of the other children. For the 3-year-old group, Head Start parents saw better social skills in their children.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Head Start Gains Found to Fade by 3rd Grade in Latest Study

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