Early Childhood

Head Start Study Finds Brief Learning Gains

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 14, 2010 4 min read
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Participation in Head Start has positive effects on children’s learning while they are in the program, but most of the advantage they gain disappears by the end of 1st grade, a federal impact study of Head Start programs says.

A large-scale randomized control study of nearly 5,000 children released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this week shows that a group of children who entered Head Start at age 4 benefited from a year in the program, particularly in learning language and literacy. Benefits included 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.

Benefits for children who entered Head Start at age 3 were even stronger. By the end of Head Start, the group that had entered at age 3 showed gains in most of the language and learning areas that the 4-year-old group had, but also showed benefits in learning math, pre-writing skills, and perceptual motor skills.

But by the end of the 1st grade, the study found, children who had attended Head Start had an edge in only one aspect of learning in comparison with control groups. Children in the Head Start 4-year-old group did significantly better on vocabulary than children in the control group. And Head Start participants in the 3-year-old group performed better in oral comprehension than children in the study’s control group.

In other words, most of the advantages in learning that children gained because of Head Start disappeared by the time they finished 1st grade.

Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, which oversees the federal preschool program, said in a statement about the study that “for Head Start to achieve its full potential, we must improve its quality and promote high standards across all early-childhood programs.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seconded the need for improvement in the program. “These results make it clear that we need to build a more coordinated system of early care and education, and to focus on key improvements to teaching and learning in the early grades,” he said in a statement.

Quality Concerns

The authors of the impact study write that “although the quality is high on average, Head Start programs vary in terms of instruction in the key areas measured as part of this study.” They also stressed that children in the control group participated in a mixture of alternative child-care settings, including care by their parents. So the study is reporting only how Head Start children benefited above and beyond children in other kinds of early-childhood settings.

Craig T. Ramey, a professor of health studies and psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an interview that researchers in the field of early-childhood education see Head Start as a “great idea,” but added that “Head Start must hold its feet to the quality fire.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has a working group that should take on the task of establishing national standards for all child-care programs, including Head Start, he said.

Mr. Ramey questioned the quality not only of some Head Start programs, but of the impact study as well. He characterized it as an example of “poor scholarship and reporting of data.”

He said, for example, the study reports only effect sizes and doesn’t provide information about the performance of children on average. The federal government was supposed to have released data two years ago to scientists so they could analyze the information, he noted, but such data have not been released as part of the impact study. It is not possible to tell by the study whether Head Start students are “humming along at the national average” in terms of their cognitive learning, or if they are “at the 10th percentile” on standardized measures of cognitive learning, he said.

Mr. Ramey and his wife, Sharon Landesman Ramey, a professor of child and family studies at Georgetown University, have written a paper that they expect to present on a panel hosted by the Washington-based Brookings Institution on Jan. 19. They characterize Head Start programs as “unacceptably uneven in their quality.”

Exemplary programs should be identified and serve as models, they write, but the Head Start programs that are failing should be “improved or terminated quickly to prevent serious harm to children.”

Deborah Lowe Vandell, the chairwoman of the education department at the University of California, Irvine, said in an e-mail that the study’s analysis of some subgroups of preschoolers participating in Head Start showed the program was more effective in improving the cognitive and academic performance of children most at risk of failing academically, those with the lowest academic performance when they entered Head Start and children with limited proficiency in English.

“At the same time,” she wrote, “I wish that stronger positive effects had been demonstrated for a broader range of children. A possible explanation for these differential effects is that Head Start was not sufficiently challenging for children with stronger cognitive and language skills.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Head Start Study Finds Brief Learning Gains

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