Early Childhood

Head Start Advantages Mostly Gone by 3rd Grade, Study Finds

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 21, 2012 6 min read
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While Head Start participation benefited children’s learning and development during their time in the federally funded 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, researchers found that the positive impacts 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 participated in Head Start. The new findings, released today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are consistent with an earlier phase of the study which showed that many of the positive impacts 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. Study participants were children who were eligible for the preschool services based on family income. The children were assigned by lottery to a group that had access to Head Start services or a control group that did not have access to Head Start, but could enroll in other early-childhood programs.

The national study—which was mandated by Congress in 1998 when Head Start was reauthorized—consisted 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 Health and Human Services department opted to extend it through 3rd grade.

The study’s release, which had been delayed a few times, comes at a tense time for Head Start. For the first time in the federal program’s history, 132 long-time grantees who provide Head Start services are being forced to compete with other bidders to hold onto their funding, part of an Obama administration effort to improve quality. The results of that recompetition won’t be announced until spring. It’s also possible the study’s results could sway lawmakers’ thinking on whether to push to cut or spare Head Start in ongoing budget negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff.

In the first phase of the evaluation, a group of children who entered Head Start at age 4 saw 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, demonstrated by their language and literacy skills, as well their skills in learning math, prewriting, and perceptual motor skills.

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 peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.

And now, in this final phase of the study, “there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group,” the researchers wrote in an executive summary.

“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 not any impacts. There are clear signals here that we need some innovative policies around the delivery of services.”

Specifically, by the end of 3rd grade, 4-year-old Head Start participants showed only a single advantage in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and school performance over their peers in the control group. Only their performance on one reading assessment showed that they still retained some benefit over their control group counterparts. But, according to the study, their participation in Head Start showed no significant positive impacts on math skills, prewriting, promotion, or teachers’ reports of children’s school accomplishments. About 40 percent of the children in the control group did not receive formal preschool services; the rest did, just not through Head Start.

In the 3-year-old cohort, researchers found a learning disadvantage for those who had been in Head Start. Parents of the Head Start children reported lower rates of grade promotion than parents of the students who were not in the Head Start group.

Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, said the 3rd grade findings were no surprise, but still leave some major questions unanswered. One, she said, is the amount of time children spent in the Head Start classrooms because that varies widely across programs. The other, she noted, is a description of the quality of the learning experiences both in the Head Start classrooms and the early-childhood programs attended by children in the control group.

“We can’t tell whether time and quality made a difference,” she said. “We know that the interaction between the child and the teacher matters so much and if you are only in a classroom for three hours a day, four days a week and out all summer long, the experience is much different than for children who go a full day, a full year, and with a teacher that is strong.”

When researchers examined the impacts on children’s social-emotional development, their findings were significantly different for the two age groups. For 4-year-olds, parents of Head Start participants reported less aggressive behavior at the end of 3rd grade than did the parents of the control group children. In contrast, teachers reported higher incidences of emotional problems in Head Start students, and less positive relationships with them. For the 3-year-old group, parents of Head Start participants reported better social skills in their children, compared to the control group parents.

In examining impacts on health, the researchers similarly found no remaining advantages of Head Start participation at the end of 3rd grade. Parenting practices however, still showed some positive benefits of Head Start participation in both age groups. For 4-year-olds in the Head Start group, parents reported spending more time with their children than did the control group parents, and in the 3-year-old group, researchers found that parents in the Head Start group were more likely to use a parenting style characterized by high warmth and high control.

Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, called the vanishing impacts of Head Start in the early grades “troubling,” but noted that Head Start does its core job well by preparing disadvantaged children for kindergarten. “Our work with students ends when children graduate from Head Start, but it is clear that for many, their circumstances continue to hinder their success; circumstances including, but not limited to, the quality of their primary and secondary education,” she said in a prepared statement.

Ms. Guernsey said to sustain the positive impacts of any early-learning experience into the first years of elementary school requires more emphasis on improvements in kindergarten, first, and second grades.

“The idea that one or two years of preschool is a silver bullet really needs to be stripped from our minds,” she said. “The impact study from two years ago and this one now reminds us that the quality of the learning experience in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade really matters too.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.