Head Start is often viewed as a “laboratory” for developing effective interventions for children in poverty. Issues affecting this program therefore have broad implications for early childhood education policy in general.
Head Start children are selected among the most disadvantaged children in their communities and are also often referred to the program by other social agencies. Unfortunately, Head Start does not have enough money to serve all children who live in poverty. Currently, only 60% of eligible children participate in Head Start. Insufficient funding is one of the many challenges the program faces in meeting the goal of offering comprehensive services to children from low-income families. Another challenge is that, since families move in and out of poverty, it is difficult to target the pool of children eligible at any given time. Low teacher qualifications are also a problem. Finally, there is much debate over the optimal mix of services (educational vs. health and social, child-oriented vs. family-oriented, etc.).
There have been a number of studies on the impact of Head Start, but most studies suffer from methodological problems (usually with comparison groups), making their findings difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, evidence supports the general conclusion that children attending the program enjoy modest benefits over both the short and long term.
In a study comparing Head Start participants with their non-participating siblings, long-term benefits reported were increased high school graduation and college attendance rates for white participants and reductions in criminal charges or convictions among African-American participants. In another recent but small-scale study, researchers observed positive health and cognitive outcomes for children, as well as benefits in terms of parents’ health and safety habits.
So far, the ongoing Head Start Impact Study combines the best experimental design with a nationally representative sample of nearly 5,000 children. It compares progress in cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting domains in children randomly assigned to a Head Start group or a non-Head Start group. Initial results show very modest outcomes after one year of participation in Head Start. Specifically, positive effects were found for letter-word identification, pre-writing and vocabulary scores, and how often parents read to their children. No significant effects were found on oral comprehension or mathematics. The strongest impact was on parent reports of children’s literacy skills and receiving dental care.
Another study matched data on Head Start programs to child-level data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). It found that Head Start programs with higher per-capita spending and programs that spend more on child-oriented activities (such as education, health and nutrition) tend to have better child outcomes.
Several recent evaluations examine the effects of Early Head Start, which targets children from birth to age three. Short-term effects appear to be very positive, as participating children have significantly higher scores on several cognitive tests, exhibit less aggressive behaviour and less negative behaviour towards parents during play, and demonstrate better sustained attention to an object during play at age three. How well these gains are maintained over time still needs to be evaluated.