While President Obama in his State of the Union address called for greater investment in early childhood education, he also said some 70,000 disadvantaged three- to five-year-old children and their families could be denied access to Head Start programs if Congress fails to reach an agreement on the deficit reduction. As policymakers evaluate funding for Head Start, it is worth examining the evidence base for this program that has served more than 27 million children and their families since its founding in 1965.
From the start, Head Start has been the object of vigorous debate and research. Often misunderstood as a program intended to boost students’ test scores, Head Start has always had broader goals: strengthening families (and particularly parents’ involvement in their child’s education), and promoting the health of children and parents, as well as giving young children a safe, developmentally appropriate environment to learn the social, behavioral, and cognitive skills that will give them a leg-up on kindergarten.
With federal legislation enacted in 1998, Congress mandated rigorous evaluation of the Head Start program. The results of the most recent set of findings demonstrates that access to Head Start has immediate, significant, and positive impacts on children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, although few impacts on children were sustained through third grade.
The Advisory Committee on Head Start Research and Evaluation, a prestigious group of researchers and practitioners who developed the blueprint for the Head Start Impact Study, recommended that the “research findings should be used in combination with the rest of Head Start research in an effort to improve the effectiveness of Head Start programs for children and families.” With this in mind, decision makers should take into account two important findings from the body of research on Head Start:
- In the almost 50 years since Head Start was created, states and localities have launched a wide range of early learning programs, many targeted to the same low-income population that Head Start serves. When we compare children who attended Head Start with children who did not, it is quite likely that the latter group attended some kind of early childhood program. School systems across the nation are working to better understand how to help sustain the impacts of all early childhood interventions – not just Head Start — from kindergarten to third grade and beyond.
- Researchers who have studied Head Start have found “sleeper effects,” that suggest though some effects may be dormant for some time, Head Start has benefitted children when they enter high school and early adulthood.
On this last point, a few years ago, David Deming, a Harvard researcher, conducted an analysis of the long-term benefits of Head Start. Using longitudinal data (that is, following the same children over time), Deming contrasted outcomes in young adulthood for siblings who either participated or did not participate in Head Start (thereby controlling for a host of background characteristics). He found a number of beneficial effects.
Participants were more likely to graduate from high school or to have tried at least one year of college, and less likely to have a learning disability, to be idle (not engaged in either education or employment) or to have poor health. Some effects were particularly strong for certain subgroups of children: for instance, boys who participated in Head Start were especially less likely than non-participants to repeat a grade; black children were especially more likely to have attempted college; on several of the outcome measures, the biggest gains were for those participants whose mothers scored low on cognitive ability.
The bottom line? On a summary index of young adult outcomes, which (in addition to those mentioned above) included teen parenthood and crime, Deming found that Head Start participants gain nearly a quarter of a standard deviation. How much is that? Well, it closes about a third of the gap between children from families with median incomes and those with the lowest incomes.
Perhaps even more important, Head Start is not in the same league as some of the model child care programs (often funded with generous university or foundation support). Head Start quality has improved over time, but in the 1990s (the period of Deming’s study) it was more representative of “good” (not “best”) care. Yet even so the gains from Head Start are about 80 percent as large as those in the Perry Preschool Project—the best known of the model programs, which has been found to have a very favorable return-on-investment—at about 60 percent of the cost.
It is not always easy to know where to start when facing tough budget choices. We recommend starting with the evidence.
David Murphey, Senior Scientist
Sarah Daily, Research Scientist
 Deming, D. (2009). Early childhood intervention and life-cycle skill development: Evidence from Head Start. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(3), 111-134.