One prediction I make confidently is that most responses to the new report on Head Start’s effects will be wrong. Advocates of Head Start will try to “kill the messenger” by attacking the study and rejecting any notion that Head Start needs serious reform. Opponents of Head Start will claim that the program has been shown to be a complete failure. People on both sides will claim that the report shows “fade out” and many will blame poor public schools.
I make another prediction that the Obama administration, with its theme of “Change,” will avoid these errors and chart a new course for Head Start based on what can be learned from this study and others. Confidence in this prediction is tempered by the knowledge that real policy change never comes easy, but I have high hopes. In what follows, I set out six key lessons from the findings, make three specific recommendations for change, and close with some good news.
My comments and recommendations are not based on the Impact Study alone. Science is cumulative. New studies don’t simply obviate everything that has gone before, and the Head Start National Impact Study has to be interpreted in light of the full body of research on Head Start, early care and education, and child development.
What did we learn?
(1) In this study, and in others, Head Start’s initial impacts are modest. Just how small they are is hard to say because many children in the control group attended other programs including preschools in the public schools. Taking into account that some children in the study crossed over (some assigned to Head Start did not go and some control group children found their way into Head Start), the estimated gains are larger, and accounting for other preschool programs attended by the controls would lead to even larger estimates. However, even with generous allowance for effects of other programs, it seems highly unlikely that Head Start produced gains as large as have been found for quality programs elsewhere. Most private preschool programs are lower in quality and less effective compared to Head Start. State-funded pre-K varies tremendously; some state programs are likely less effective, while the best are more effective.
(2) There is little evidence of persistent effects on children’s cognitive and social development. This is exactly what other studies would predict given small initial impacts. Our comprehensive meta-analysis of research on the effects of preschool indicates that after school entry, cognitive effects are only about half as large as initial effects. Given how small the advantages from Head Start access were to start with it is not a surprise that they are no longer discernible at the end of kindergarten or first grade. What will surprise many is that this is not “fade out,” but catch up.
(3) The Head Start Impact Study provides some very interesting graphs that show how fast children learn year by year and demonstrate that the lost advantage overtime is not likely fade out. With the exception of the PPVT (the one cognitive measure with some evidence of persistent gain), learning rates on cognitive measures are much faster in kindergarten than during Head Start. Neither Head Start nor control children made much progress during the Head Start year, which is the fundamental problem. By comparison, kindergarten greatly accelerated learning for both groups, and the acceleration is slightly greater for the control group so they catch up. Many other studies have found that the public schools devote tremendous resources to catching up children who enter school far behind; this is inefficient and expensive, but it works. When initial gains from early education are small, they can be swamped by the effects of more intensive efforts in kindergarten and the early grades. Read the rest of this entry »