A report released last week on the first year of a comprehensive study of Head Start showed that the federal preschool program had a modest impact on participating children in the areas of cognitive development, emotional and social well-being, and health.
The study’s data, however, are being interpreted in significantly different ways. The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, said the results showed that most of the program’s pupils and its graduates continue to lag behind their peers.
But the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group representing Head Start parents and teachers, crowed over the study’s results, saying they showcased the 40-year-old program’s effectiveness.
“You can look at these findings and either conclude that the glass is half empty or half full,” said Wade F. Horn, the Health and Human Services Department’s assistant secretary for children and families.
The study, released June 9 and conducted by Westat, a Rockville, Md., research company on behalf of the HHS Department, followed 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds beginning in the fall of 2002.
Some of the children entered local Head Start programs for the first time, while the rest were enrolled in non-Head Start preschool programs in their communities. The study compared the progress of the two groups on a variety of factors that ranged from their academic progress to the quality of their health care. The monitoring will continue through 2006, following the children through the spring of 1st grade.
The first-year results found that 3-year-olds in Head Start got the most benefits from the program, which serves about 900,000 poor children nationwide. But 4-year-olds entering the program for the first time also showed some benefits.
Results found that both 3- and 4-year-olds, compared with the preschool pupils not enrolled in Head Start, had small to moderate improvements in pre-reading, pre-writing, vocabulary, and parental reports of children’s literacy skills. But neither age group showed a significant improvement in oral comprehension or early math skills.
Three-year-olds also saw a decrease, compared with the non-Head Start group, in behavior problems such as hyperactivity and in their health status, including a moderate increase in the dental care they received.
The 3-year-olds’ parents were found to have small improvements in what the study characterized as their parenting skills. The study found that parents increased the number of times they read to their children and decreased the frequency of spanking their children.
While a moderate number of 4-year-olds received more professional dental care, and the research revealed slight gains in the number of times their parents read to them, 4-year-olds did not show improvement in various other areas cited in the study, such as behavior problems, vocabulary, and general health status.
The researchers found no significant gains for either 3- or 4-year-olds in early math learning, oral comprehension, or social competencies, including the ability to interact with peers and teachers. The report cautions, however, that it “provides only a partial set of preliminary indicators.”
Future reports will look at other factors such as whether the Head Start group was in a full- or partial-day program.
In a statement, the Health and Human Services Department said that despite the gains shown in several areas, Head Start programs are not closing the gap between poor children and the general population.
“There’s room for improvement,” Mr. Horn said in an interview. “We see this as evidence that we can do a better job.” But Sarah M. Greene, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, said the study showed “very good progress” for the program.
“Sure they still have a ways to go, … but it is having a positive impact,” she said of the Head Start program overall. The fact that 3-year-olds saw more of an improvement, she said, “shows the younger the children [are] exposed to the program, the better the result.”
She contended that the Bush administration’s less rosy interpretation of the report “follows a pattern … of trying to twist everything into a very negative situation when that isn’t the case.”
The NHSA and the administration have been at odds over the Head Start program for several years. They’ve battled over a failed administration plan to move the program to the Department of Education and over the effectiveness of the National Reporting System the administration put in place to evaluate how much Head Start students were learning. (“Criticism Over New Head Start Testing Program Mounts,” January 14, 2004.)
The $6 billion preschool program is also in the middle of a Congressional reauthorization, with both the House and Senate education committees having approved bills. Ms. Greene said the association remains concerned about provisions that would limit parental involvement in the program.
But Mr. Horn said that the Head Start group wanted to safeguard the program itself, without regard to whether it is effective.
“What concerns me most about the NHSA stance over the last four years is that they seem to be … unwilling to entertain the idea that the Head Start program could be improved,” he said. “My allegiance, frankly, is not to the Head Start program, but to the children in it.”