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.
(4) Head Start does not reach the same level of educational quality as large scale public pre-K programs found to produce much larger gains for children (for example, state-funded pre-K in Oklahoma, New Jersey, or California, or the Child-Parent Centers in Chicago). The quality ratings (ECERS-R) of Head Start reported by the Impact Study are completely at odds with what many other investigators find. The fact that these results are consistent with the Head Start FACES results for quality is hardly persuasive as it is likely the same procedures were used in the two studies. Now I am not saying that Head Start is of poor quality, but the Impact Study found that more than 70 percent of Head Start programs are good to excellent. Even allowing for the shortcomings of the rating system used as a measure of educational effectiveness, this is not credible. Nor is it believable that 30 to 40 percent of the other arrangements accessed by disadvantaged children who don’t have access to Head Start are good to excellent. Other studies find that Head Start’s educational quality is mediocre on average (some are very good, some are not so good), a level entirely consistent with the findings for Head Start effects.
(5) Even the small initial effects found for Head Start may be associated with important, if modest, gains later on in such real life indicators as staying on grade level, special education placements, and high school graduation. Small persistent effects that could lead to these are difficult to detect, and the amount of participation in other programs by the control group makes this doubly hard. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Any longer-term effects found will be unacceptably small.
(6) Other research studies find initial effects of higher quality preschool programs several times larger than those in the Impact Study. Although not all of the advantage is sustained after school entry, the achievement gains that remain are meaningful. The lack of persistent findings in the Impact Study does nothing to overturn or call into question these results from other studies. To the contrary, findings of long-term gains for other programs that have produced substantially larger short-term gains indicate that a reformed Head Start could produce persistent gains as well. However, Head Start will have to be changed to look more like those higher quality programs.
What should we do in response?
To redeem its promise as a highly effective early education program, Head Start will need to change. I have three suggestions to start.
(1) Require all Head Start teachers to become highly qualified and raise teacher pay in Head Start for highly qualified teachers to equality with local public schools. This might be partly or fully accomplished through reallocations of existing Head Start budgets; aside from dental care, it doesn’t seem that services outside the classroom are producing much. In my view, “highly qualified” begins with a BA and specialized training, not just any BA degree and training. We can pay for existing Head Start teachers who want to upgrade their qualifications to go back to school, but we should specify the core early childhood course work requirements. In addition, counseling should be provided to help them navigate higher education and get into and through good programs.
(2) Head Start should implement a streamlined system of “plan-do-review,” the core of which is assessment of teacher practice and children’s learning linked to on-site professional development.
(3) Head Start should “fire” programs with observably poor teaching that fail to produce strong learning gains for children year after year (note that good teachers from these programs will likely be rehired by the new program). This will require hard data on classroom practices and test results for children, but it does not mean testing every child; sampling works fine.
If doubt runs too high about these remedies, the first two at least can be rapidly tested in rigorous studies. (The state of New Jersey essentially conducted a “natural experiment” under court order testing this out, but Head Start could conduct a true experiment).
What’s the good news?
As part of its 2007 reauthorization, the Head Start program was already moving forward on a variety of reforms. In addition, the Obama administration has proposed sweeping changes in Head Start that will go a long away toward turning things around. These proposals include well-crafted approaches to some of the changes I suggested above and much more. They should be pursued with a high degree of urgency and in a partnership between Head Start and the U.S. Department of Education. Despite the greater successes of some state pre-K programs, Head Start is not the only public preschool program that needs reform, and plenty of state and local preschool programs may perform no better (or worse) than Head Start. You can read the details of the administration’s plans for Head Start reform at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/news/press/2010/head_start_roadmap.html.