Head Start study shows no lasting gains

Head Start’s benefits fade by first grade, concludes a major study on the $7 billion-a-year program’s impact. While Head Start participants have a social, emotional and cognitive edge over similar kids who didn’t participate in pre-K, according to a 2005 study, the advantages don’t last long.

“The next few weeks are probably going to be rocky ones for the Head Start community,” writes Early Ed Watch, which suggested K-3 teachers aren’t trained to help Head Start grads move forward.

The mainstream media have ignored the study, complains Andrew Coulson of Cato @ Liberty. I did spot a column in the Kansas City Star.

Update: Education Week’s Mary Ann Zehr has more on the study.

It’s time to “terminate, consolidate or reform” federal preschool programs before ‘investing’ more dollars, writes Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation.

Jay P. Greene has more detail on the study.

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  1. The mainstream media have ignored the study

    I would imagine so. Given the overall lack of success of programs aimed at under-privileged children, if one of the major programs that was assumed to be effective is seen to be failing, the odds of any other program garnering enough popular support to be make it politically feasible to fund approaches zero.

    Since few in the newspaper business want to be seen as encouraging the belief that “nothing can be done, let’s stop wasting our money”, it’s little wonder that they are in no hurry to promote the story.

    I suspect that if there was a more effective replacement on the horizon, the media’s reaction might be different.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I noticed that the original gains were in the areas of ‘letter recognition’ and ‘writing’— Older kids (K and 1rst graders) have an easier time picking up both of these skills– so it seems that head start wasted time working on skills that are difficult to introduce to pre-schoolers, but fairly easy to teach to older kids.

    (I’ve seen this with my own kids… I can work hard to teach them a skill at 4, or achieve a higher level of mastery in the blink of an eye at 5.5–sometimes, waiting is beneficial!)

    Maybe we should be teaching different skills in headstart–or, rather than focusing on skills, maybe we should work on life experience and background knowledge.

    A middle or upperclass pre-schooler will get to see zoos, aquariums, museums, national parks and classical concerts. Lower SES kids miss out on these things, even when they live a few miles from downtown.

    A higher SES kid has parents who will read to her about dinosaurs, mummies, presidents and folk tales. Lower SES kid might not have a literate adult at home.

    If we want the head start kids to have a chance to catch up with the middle class, maybe the most important thing is to give them the experiences of a middle class 4 year old! If I don’t work hard to teach my daughter letters and phonics at 4, it’s because I know that she’ll pick it up more easily in a few months– but she’s getting a wealth of experiences that will translate to better comprehension later on…

    (This week, sadly, we’re learning about Haiti–because her father and I read the morning news to each other….)

  3. Kevin Smith says:

    My wife teaches in More at Four (a state run early childhood program for at risk 4 year olds) here in NC and sees the Head Start people on a regular basis. To say she is unimpressed would be putting it mildly. More at Four reguires certified teachers with four year degrees and has a standardized curriculum based on research. The HeadStart program requires teachers to have a a HS diploma or GED and appears to focus all most all its time on paperwork, toothbrushing, and field trips. The local HeadStart went to a Mexican Restaurant as a “cultural experience” last year. when she visits their centers she is stunned by the lack of oragnization and rather obvious poor use of time. The only real academic work she has ever seen being done is assignments out of workbooks (she really gets rolling on how non-age appropriate that is). Some of the HeadStart administrators around here would still be in the ILT (Initially Licensed Teacher- less than three full years in the classroom) in public schools where they are assigned a veteran buddy to help with lesson planning and curriculum awareness. She’s seen 23 year olds who are essetially principals (at least one of which who went to work for HEadStart when she never scored high enough on the Praxis to get into the school of education, so she got a “early childhood degree).

  4. There are elephants in this living room.

    This data is consistent with the hypothesis that low SES individuals tend to possess low general intelligence. We may not like that: it may be inconsistent with our ideologies; it may be contrary to our pecuniary interest. If this second point is too obscure, just consider the reaction which suggests that more teacher training might make the unproductive programs productive.

    A second elephant we wish to ignore is the hypothesis that the intellectual disparity between low and normal -g individuals increases with maturity. That is to say, less intelligent individuals begin their intellectual development at a rate equal to or possible even in advance or their peers, but fall further and further behind as they age.

    I am not asserting that these unpleasant hypotheses are true, I do say that I do not know that they are not true. Even if true, is it all that bad to care for needy children and to give them and their families more hope? After all, human beings are not animals, bred in batches. Even if many of the so-called low-SES children were slower, all would not be, and some will benefit by the “head start.”

  5. Note that the comparison was not between kids who went to Head Start and kids who stayed home; most of the control (non-head Start) group took part in other programs outside the home.

    [See the Executive Summary of the study at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/hs/impact_study/reports/impact_study/executive_summary_final.pdf, page 11, a paragraph which concludes “The design used here answers the policy question, i.e., how well does Head Start do when compared against what else low income children could receive in the absence of the program in fall 2002.”

    This study does not seem like the definitive evaluation of Head Start’s value. That would require additional work, such as testing effects of no out-of-the-home programs compared to Head Start, as well as some review of how much Head Start programs vary regionally or even individually.

  6. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Head Start, Title I funding, Title VII funding, ad nauseum. It’s time to stop this monumental waste of money. All of these compensatory federal (taxpayer) funded programs were originally designed to close the “achievement gap”. Forty years and TRILLIONS of dollars later, there have been marginal results–at best. The dropout rate in most urban school districts has increased. Unbridled illegal immigration since 1986 has decimated school districts like Los Angeles Unified. The achievement gap is really the “values gap”–parents who value education, supervise and encourage their children properly, produce better students than parents who leave their parenting up to the nanny state and Uncle Sam. ‘Nuff said.

  7. Actually there was a federally funded pre-school education program that served low SES successfully; It was called Project Follow Through. Everyone who has done a modest amount of research on this topic has encountered the overwhelming evidence that was gleaned from Follow Through.

    For your reading pleasure: http://www.joannejacobs.com/tag/project-follow-through/

    and: http://www.zigsite.com/for_readers_not-familar_with_project_follow_through.html

  8. Correcting something I wrote in the above comment:

    Project Follow Through served students in K-3, not preschool aged. Although, Englemann’s early work was with pre-schooler.

  9. As Kevin described, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the standards for Head Start teachers, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. It sounds like some people think we shouldn’t spend a single dollar on any Pre-K education, Head Start or otherwise, as if there’s no value in it or research behind it.

    The debate should be about raising the standards for teachers and how to recruit high quality educators that can prepare and deliver a better curriculum, not whether there should be any program at all.

  10. It’s time to “terminate, consolidate or reform” federal preschool programs before ‘investing’ more dollars, writes Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation.

    If a right wing nut job from the Heritage Foundation, the most anti-poor, anti-minority, pro-business group in existence is behind the study then it must be garbage.

    Was Caroline Hoxby involved?

  11. No Tom, after nearly fifty years of trying and failing the debate ought to be whether good money ought to continue to be thrown after bad, whether government-funded child care *can* work.

    It seems to me that after decades of failure that’s a legitimate question. The more so because the ideologues throw simultaneous hissy-fits at the mere notion of shutting down these failed programs.

  12. There are plenty of federal programs that have a decades-long track record of failure and should be stopped. Good intentions are not enough, especially since the unintended consequences have been catastrophic. The legacy of the 60s is just as much about the destruction of the family, individual responsibility and (large chunks of) public schooling as it is about civil rights and the end of legal segregation.

  13. I was a former Head Start teacher for 12 years, I have seen the benefits it had on a lot of families.
    Mike Smith mentioned about not being impressed, well, here the teachers are required to at minimal an AA in Early Chilhdood, by 2011 the teachers are required to have a BA. The family Advocates are to get degrees as well. Many staff members were former parents of the Head Start program, they saw how it worked, they got motivated and went to school. Now they are teaching not only their children but other children as well. They are no longer on assistance. There is a curriculum that is followed along with Head Start performance Standards, and our own State standards. Currently in my friends class, 60% of the children are leaving being able to read. It sounds like his state needs to get more involved in Early Childhood and more active people on the board. Lets remember Head Start program is not just for the children but for the families as well. The families that I had worked with myself as grown significantly were they may not of without the program. Few cases of parents that I still run into has shown great success; one parent through my help and support continued with school and through my recommendation got hired with the DOE, another parent was able to leave an abusive husband and start over with her children, the care itself allowed for this particular parent finish school and become a nurse so now she is supporting her own family, we removed a child from an abusive household member and now 13 years later still living with his grandparent, provided another a mom a resources and a call in to CPS to help her stop abusing her child: she now married with two more kids and uses redirection and time out for her little ones. There are so many more to name but I think you get the point.
    I pay so much for my children to go to preschool while I work, I can’t believe the difference that Head Start teachers do here to better the children vs. the education my child gets. I would rather send my child to Head Start for their curriculum. However, I will say just like anywhere else it also depends on the teacher themselves as well. I must congratulate all the hard working teachers here on the island.

  14. Margo/Mom says:

    I think that these results (even noting the un-evenness of Head Start quality) should help us to refocus efforts on what happens within the K-12 arena. We too easily succomb to the cries that these kids come in year behind and teachers are overwhelmed with gettting them up to speed. This would tend to indicate to me that even when students are brought in on a level playing field they are systematically under-served (that is the services do not meet their need) once the arrive at kindergarten.

    It is probably heartening that Head Start performs at a level comparable to other pre-school options. There is room for improved expectations of teacher training and curriculum (and it must be pointed out that these kinds of improvements require dollars). Perhaps better, however, to improve K-3 and on upward.

  15. Paul Hoss says:


    Great topic.

    Here’s my theory which I’ve maintained for almost as long as Head Start has been in existence: Unfortunately, Head Start has become almost as much of an employment agency for the (under-educated) adults in the community as it is a preschool program for the underprivileged kids. While the employment opportunities for the adults are a nice byproduct of Head Start (for the adults), this does no favors for the original focus of the program – the poor/minority toddlers.

    “K-3 teachers aren’t trained to help Head Start grads move forward.” Once the target population reaches kindergarten, grade one, they are essentially forced to sit through a year or even two while their non-Head Start classmates “catch up” to them.

    If the kids who participated in Head Start were instead instructed at their level and individually instructed at their own pace(s), the non-Head Start kids would probably never catch them. If this is confusing, read my “Individualized Instruction” piece from the December, 2009 Core Knowledge blog archives.

    Conclusion: The Head Start preschool program (in many cases) works. It’s what happens to these kids once they enter kindergarten and grade one that’s failing. Head Start could also be improved if there were degreed/certified teachers in the classroom.

  16. Mike,
    a) The US Congress “was behind the study”.
    b) Heritage is pro-market. “Pro-market” does not mean “anti-poor, anti-minority, pro-business”; quite the contrary–political control of institutions harms most the children of the least politically adept groups (e.g., the poor, minority parents who would abandon the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s schools in a minute if given tuition vouchhers).
    c) Caroline Hoxby (B.A. Harvard, Ph.D, M.I.T.) taught and conducted research at Harvard and Stanford. She is a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research. She does very good work.

  17. Lots of good comments here.

    That’s why I read this blog everyday.

  18. Caroline Hoxby does such poor and biased research she never bothers to publish in established journals b/c her work would never withstand a peer review.


    The Heritage Foundation has long been recognized as a PR dept. for the Republican Party.

  19. Sorry Carol but it wouldn’t matter if Head Start personnel had multiple PhD’s as well as the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Head Start’s been a failure from the beginning and it’s never gotten better.

    The best that any honest review of the program has been able to come up with is a modest, but not consistent, improvement which disappears by grade three. That’s not success and if there’s no success then ethical considerations demand the program be terminated.

  20. Mike in Texas, if you want anyone to take you seriously, don’t libel an illustrious academic. From Wikipedia:

    “Hoxby’s research has received much recognition including a Carnegie Fellowship, a Sloan Fellowship, a John M. Olin Fellowship, a National Tax Association Award, and Global Leader of Tomorrow from the World Economic Forum. She is the recipient of the 2006 Thomas J. Fordham Prize for Distinguished Scholarship. She has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the Institute for Education Sciences, and the National Institute of Child Health and Development.

    Her well known work includes The Economics of School Choice (University of Chicago Press, 2003), College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It (University of Chicago Press, 2004), “How Teachers’ Unions Affect Education Production” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1996), “The Effects of Class Size on Student Achievement” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1999), “Does Competition among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers?” (American Economic Review, 2000), “Not All School Finance Equalizations Are Created Equal” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001), “Pulled Away or Pushed Out? Explaining the Decline of Teacher Aptitude in the United States” (American Economic Review, 2004), and “Political Jurisdictions in Heterogeneous Communities” (Journal of Political Economy, 2004).”

  21. Wow, if Wikipedia says she’s great she must be, b/c the quality control there is great! It’s not like just anybody can write . . . Oops, wait a minute! Anybody can!

    Do you think I’m impressed by an award from the Fordham Foundation? Also, note how all her works on schools are published in economic journals. When was the last time you saw an “study” on economics in an education journal?




  22. Kevin Smith says:


    Your statement that my state needs to get more involved in early childhood confuses me. North Carolina’s More at Four program is one of the few early childhood programs widely seen as effective and all the requirements of education that Headstart CLAIMS it will have in place by 2011 (there is an escape clause in the plan that allows them out if “qualified personnel are not available in sufficient numbers”) have been a part of More at Four since it’s inseption.

  23. (Mike): “Caroline Hoxby does such poor and biased research she never bothers to publish in established journals b/c her work would never withstand a peer review.”
    Cranberry): ““The Effects of Class Size on Student Achievement” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1999), “Does Competition among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers?” (American Economic Review, 2000), “Not All School Finance Equalizations Are Created Equal” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001), “Pulled Away or Pushed Out? Explaining the Decline of Teacher Aptitude in the United States” (American Economic Review, 2004), and “Political Jurisdictions in Heterogeneous Communities” (Journal of Political Economy, 2004).”
    (Mike): “note how all her works on schools are published in economic journals. When was the last time you saw an “study” on economics in an education journal?”

    Mike, your original claim, “she never bothers to publish in established journals”, is flat false. JPE and AER are premier Economics publications, equivalent to Science, Nature, or Taxon. Professor Hoxby is an economist; of course she publishes in Economics journals. Dr. Hoxby’s credentials (Harvard A.B., Oxford M.A., MIT PhD) outclass Sean Reardon’s credentials (Notre Dame B.A., Liberal Studies, Notre Dame M.A., Peace Studies, Harvard M.Ed. Ed Admin, Harvard Ed.D., Ed Admin), in my mind.

    Of course, credentials don’t count for much. What’s important is, does the argument make sense? Dr. Hoxby takes great care in her analyses. I don’t know anything about Professor Reardon. I will have to read some of his work. If he cites Kozol in support of his emphasis on financial problems attendant upon assignment by district, he’s a fraud (Kozol is a fraud).

  24. Malcolm,

    That’s why she’s referred to as “Hoaxby” by people who actually teach.

    As you admit, all her work is published in economics journals. BUT we are discussing her work in regards to education, which is never peer reviewed and never published in education journals.

    Do a little research and you’ll see her latest study on charter schools was not peer reviewed, while the CREDO study, whose results were much less favorable to charter schools, was reviewed by 4 independent experts.

    In addition, someone has tried to replicate her results and was unable to.

    I would take Kozol over Hoaxby any day of the week when it comes to education matters.

  25. (Mike): “That’s why she’s referred to as “Hoaxby” by people who actually teach.”
    Teach methods of ad hominem argumentation and juvenile plays on names, perhaps. Or maybe, “people who actually teach” means “overpaid system insiders who would otherwise would find employment as janitors’ assistants in a competitive market in education services”.

    Kozol’s thesis (Savage Inequalities), that the legal structure of assignment by district and property tax support of school causes the dilapidated buildings and obsolete textbooks of inner-city minority school districts, is false. Across the US, more is spent, per student, on schooling (I do not say “education”) of black kids than on white kids. Those large inner-city minority school districts get more money per pupil, on average than white districts. The bureaucrats steal taxpayers’ money and poor kids’ life chances.

    As an aside, Kozol wrote a laudatory foreward to Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society in which Illich wrote that a compassionate society would have in its Constitution a clause like the First Amendment to the US Constitution which would read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education”. Guess he cut a deal with the bureaucrats.

    I expect that Caroline Hoxby’s charter school study either has appeared or will appear in a peer-reviewed Econ journal. Academics often distribute accessible versions of their scholarly work to popular media.

  26. (Mike): “BUT we are discussing her work in regards to education, which is never peer reviewed…”
    Flat false. See the list Cranberry provided. American Economic Review, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, and The Journal of Political Economy are peer-reviewed.


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