Feds delay, twist Head Start research

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly, writes Jay Greene, but Health and Human Services is “up to its old tricks of delaying research whose results are likely to undermine their darling program, Head Start.”

In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, five senators asked “why the latest round of results of the congressionally mandated study have not been released four years after data collection was complete and one year after the report was scheduled to be released.”

In 2010 I told you about how the Department of Health and Human Services delayed the release of the previous round of disappointing research results about the lasting effects of Head Start.  When the extremely high quality study, involving a random-assignment design on a representative sample of all Head Start programs nationwide, was finally released three years after the data collection was complete, it found that students randomly assigned to Head Start performed no better on cognitive measures by the end of kindergarten and first grade.

Despite this, HHS declared the program a huge success.  “Research clearly shows that Head Start positively impacts the school readiness of low-income children,” said Sebelius.


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  1. Overthehill says:

    If the benefits of Head Start fade quickly, could it be because they no longer get the high quality family support they got in Head Start and now have to fend for themselves like everyone else?

    Head Start children and families come from very deprived backgrounds. They are given intense support during HS participation if they are willing to accept it. My experience as both a teacher and school board member in the public sector is thatthe public school system, in many, many cases, is only there for those who seek them out. Parents of poor children who don’t participate in parent teacher conferences don’t care about their children. It doesn’t matter that they work during the hours conference are held and they might be fired for missing.

    You quit giving plant food to a plant and its growth slows down. You quit giving enriched services to children, and the head start disappears, but the child and family are still better off for the experience.

    Somewhere in that report, there is evidence HS children are more liky to graduate high school and less likely to be incarcerated. If it’s not there, maybeit wasn’t such a high quality study after all.

    • Supersub says:

      Whether the failure to maintain progress is due to HS or the following years of school, it doesn’t change the fact that the money thrown into the program is wasted.
      Doctors don’t give transplants to patients whose life expectancy won’t improve.

    • Genevieve says:

      Or could it be that Head Start has a mix of quality. In our area, the majority of Head Starts are in the elementary schools. The quality of teachers is a mixed bag; everything from the best preschool teacher I have ever seen to some of the worst. The assistants are even more of a mixed bag.

      In our area, there is no transportation, most programs are not within walkable distance of families, bus system is minimal, and the program is only for 3 hours a day. Family advocates have been stretched to serve so many classrooms that they have little time to spend with families. With the exceptions of teachers who work for the school district (some Head Start teachers have a school contract, teachers that are in programs outside of a public school are payed differently), the pay is far less than other teachers make. Assistants are payed little. There is a lot of turnover.

      How much gains can we expect to see in programs that meet 10-12 hours a week? The programs rarely focus on giving the children the interaction and experiences that most middle class parents engage with their children. There has been an increased focus on pre-literacy skills. However, I think the results of this are limited by some of the problems that Core Knowledge talks about.

      The one thing you can say for Head Start is it ensures that children have 2 meals a day that are relatively healthy. It makes sure that children’s teeth are being taken care of. It also provides another check to make sure that children are safe at home.

    • Roger Sweeny says:


      So you are agreeing that it is true that, “students randomly assigned to Head Start performed no better on cognitive measures by the end of kindergarten and first grade.” However, you are also saying that “HS children are more liky to graduate high school and less likely to be incarcerated.”

      Is that a fair statement of what you are trying to say? Of course, if the Head Start kids come from more motivated families, that would have to be controlled for, just like charter school results have to be controlled for maybe getting kids from more motivated families.

      • Overthehill says:

        What I am saying is that any failure to maintain the initial achievements made in a quality preschool program, which many Head Start programs are, speaks to the subsequent program. Somewhere in Internet land, there is an article about a former Americorp alum who started a program to involve parents in the local school when it was about to lose accreditation and eventually improved graduation rates, etc.

        Some people would blame the school in this case, some the parents. Maybe it was both, but obviously something needed to be done.

        I’ve done a lot of things in a lot of communities over the years (40+ in the workforce) and have been in several public schools and even observed classes in a number of different Head Start programs. The last classroom I observed was using a program called “conscious discipline”. After observing and talking to staff, I wished that my granddaughter, as well behaved as she is, could have been in that program. Some of those children had already learned a lesson that will help them the rest of their lives. These are truly children that police chiefs and other law enforcement personnel are talking about when they publicly call for more investment in Head Start and other quality preschool programs because they believe such programs improve graduation rates and reduce later incarceration rates. Living in a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the ‘free’ world, maybe we should be paying as much attention to their experience and studies as the one referred to here.

  2. Most of the “damning” Head Start research finds that benefits fade by 4th or 5th grade. Of course they do. The kids who receive Head Start services are FAR more likely to have experienced multiple years of poor instruction since entering school. That’s Head Start’s fault?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      The kids who receive Head Start services are FAR more likely to have experienced multiple years of poor instruction since entering school.

      More likely than who? If half of a high poverty elementary school “receive[d] Head Start services” and half didn’t, each half would be equally likely to have “experienced multiple years of poor instruction since entering school.” If each half is doing equally well by 4th or 5th grade, then Head Start doesn’t make a lasting difference.

      If, on the other hand, you are comparing all Head Start kids (who will disproportionally go to high poverty schools) to all non-Head Start kids (who will generally come from higher income families and go to more successful schools), well, that research is somewhere between horse excrement and a political speech.

  3. Conventional classes are well designed for just one thing – flattening out differences between students by holding back the more advanced ones. So perhaps that’s what happens to the former Head Start students?

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ouch. That’s an interesting empirical question. Any teacher in a heterogeneous classroom is constantly faced with the question,”Do I move on because some of the students are done, or do I wait becasue some of the students aren’t?”

    The faster students could be going on to new things but would they really learn more? If all their classes tried to move ahead, most of them wouldn’t have the time to keep to an accelerated pace. Others might simply not be able to keep to a pace that is faster than they are used to. And some might just refuse, especially if they are high school or middle school and expect everyone to progress at the same rate.