Change we need: Responding responsibly to the results of the Head Start Impact Study

January 15, 2010

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 »

For-Profit Pre-K Providers Faring Reasonably Well … So Far

January 8, 2010

One of many fascinating articles by Roger Neugebauer at ChildCare Exchange provides a snapshot of how the top 50 for-profit child care companies are faring and their major concerns.

Like most of the rest of us, CEOs of the top 50 are most concerned about the state of the economy and the rising cost of health insurance. Economists are already looking at shifts from private schools to public as parents find themselves less able to pay for education. Out of work parents don’t qualify for child care subsidies and state’s will have a very hard time maintaining child care subsidies once the stimulus funds run out. Look for more and more states to press for additional help from the federal government for FY 2011 and beyond. Concerns about health insurance may be influenced by the pending health care reform legislation and its implications for businesses that do not currently provide insurance to their employees. Concerns about the pending legislation also tie into worries over state budget shortfalls as states worry about their future obligations for health care costs.

Number three on their list of concerns is competition from public pre-K in the public schools. A growing population has allowed for some noncompeting growth in both public and private sectors. However, in the long-run private child care should view public pre-K as an opportunity rather than a threat. For-profit as well as not-for-profit providers can be integral components of mixed delivery systems for high-quality public pre-K. States like New Jersey have shown that with firm adherence to standards, adequate funding, and a continuous improvement process, private providers can improve service quality, provide a better living for their workforce, and grow. They can reap substantial benefits from the supportive infrastructure that public education provides while bringing more choice and competition than the public schools alone would offer.

Seventh on the list of concerns for CEOs is lack of subsidies for middle-income parents. We share that concern. With most states looking at dire economic circumstances for the foreseeable future and Obama administration initiatives taking an approach primarily targeted to the poor, a broad swath of working families stand to lose access or face declines in the quality of early education.

Neugebauer points out another fact. The two largest providers, Knowledge Universe (founded by Michael Milken) and Learning Care Group, decreased their capacity somewhat in 2009. Far and away the largest for-profit providers, they account for a combined total of nearly 400,000 children served. No doubt this reflects the effects of the economic downturn on effective demand. However, we as a field need to think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of such concentrations of market share. The quest for bigness that led these and other companies to embark on aggressive acquisition campaigns earlier in the decade can lead to big problems, and we don’t need to look to the financial sector to see them. In Australia, where the mega-chain ABC Learning Centres went into receivership, parents and communities across the country were left scrambling to keep local centers open. As of last month it looked as if the ABC story will have a happy ending, however. A new kind of non-profit social investment syndicate called GoodStart bought 678 ABC Learning Centres for a small fraction of the $3 billion market capitalization the company once had and promised to plow the profits back into services for children.

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