Head Start: Mend It, Don’t End It

August 19, 2011

One of the most neglected questions in the ECE policy arena is “How should we respond to the failure to find lasting effects for Head Start and Early Head Start after investing years and many millions in nationwide randomized trials of those important programs?” I say neglected because there is far less awareness of what the research says than one might expect given the importance of the high-quality research effort that represents our best shot at unbiased estimates of program impacts. For instance, I find that few people even know that Early Head Start’s long-term effects have been evaluated through fifth grade.  I addressed this long-simmering question  in an article published today in the journal Science.  At the outset, I wish to make clear that the evidence does not lead me to the conclusion that we should end these programs, but that they need major reform.  Let’s start by quickly reviewing the evidence.

One randomized trial evaluated the impacts of a year of Head Start by following 4,667 children and their families from entry in Head Start through kindergarten and first grade. After one year of Head Start cognitive effects were positive, but fairly small, and the broader the domain the smaller the effects. In follow-up the effects were even smaller.  No cognitive or school progress effects were found in kindergarten or first grade, though one might argue that there is a persistent effect on IQ of about 1/10th of a standard deviation.  This would close about 10 percent of the gap between Head Start children and the average child on IQ.  No effects were found on any teacher-reported measure of social-emotional development or behavior.

Upward adjustments can be made to the findings because not every child followed the random assignment (some assigned to Head Start did not attend, some assigned to the control group found their way into Head Start).  Yet even after such adjustments, follow-up results remain weak.  Additional adjustments could be made for participation in other programs, but these would make little difference, particularly at age 3 when high-quality alternatives are scarce.

A randomized trial of Early Head Start with more than 3,000 infants and toddlers produced results similar to those for Head Start even though most children and families participated two or more years. Effects at ages 2 and 3 were quite small for cognition and social-emotional measures including aggression. By age 5 no effects were found for cognition and only one small socio-emotional effect was found. In the grade 5 follow-up no effects were found on any of 49 measures and the estimated effects were near zero for both cognitive and social-emotional development.

For some in the early childhood field the reaction to these long-term findings has been denial. One claim is that bad public schools offset Head Start’s positive effects.  The national Head Start study finds, to the contrary, that gains in literacy and math accelerate for both Head Start and control groups after they enter kindergarten.  Any wash-out in Head Start effects from the public schools occurs because control children quickly make up the small advantage from attending Head Start.  Others claim that non-experimental studies consistently find long-term effects despite a lack of short-term gains in achievement.  However, the non-experimental studies are not really consistent among one another in either their short- or long-term patterns of effects.  Their positive long-term results likely result from chance variation and methodological failings rather than real effects.  If effects are not evident at fifth grade, they won’t be later.

Once we accept these disappointing findings, why not just end the programs as Joe Klein recently argued in Time magazine?  I offer two reasons.  First, America cannot afford to let so many children fail academically and socially because they are poorly prepared.  Second, some other preschool programs have succeeded to a much greater extent, and Head Start can be reshaped to be similarly effective.

Table 1 compares the initial impacts of Head Start and some other large-scale programs.  Pre-K programs with above average standards and funding are found to produce larger effects than Head Start in rigorous studies including a recent randomized trial.  The Chicago Child Parent Centers, which are similar in key respects to the state pre-K programs in Table 1, have been found to produce effects on achievement and social development into adulthood as well.  Reshaping Head Start to more closely resemble these programs would enhance its effectiveness. A quantitative summary of research on early educational intervention over the past 50 years adds weight to this argument as the Head Start and Early Head Start comprehensive services approach is associated with weaker effects, possibly because it reduces the educational focus.

Table 1. Achievement Gains from Pre-K

My prescription for improving Head Start includes increasing the percentage of funds spent inside the classroom, building a stronger connection to public education, and eliminating much federal oversight and related paper work.  Early Head Start needs the same freedom from regulation, but should adopt home-based models that have a strong evidence base (Olds’ Nurse Family Partnership) as well as strengthen center-based options. Give programs a set amount of money, audit the books, and assess teaching and learning.  Teaching should be highly intentional and include direct instruction one-on-one and in small groups.  A new continuous improvement process should be put in place for learning and teaching.  The Obama administration’s plans for re-competition of low-performing Head Start agencies should be implemented as soon as possible based on both measures of teaching and broad measures of child progress.  Early Head Start should be regarded as an experimental program and subject to large-scale research for at least the next five years.

No doubt, these recommendations will be as controversial as is my longstanding recommendation to increase the amount and quality of education required of Head Start teachers and to increase their compensation accordingly.  Head Start teachers should be given the opportunity to return to school with tuition and fees paid by government loans that would be forgiven if they remain in Head Start five years later.  The quality and content of the programs they attend should be subject to an approval process to be eligible for these forgivable loans.

Even if they were not controversial, it would be foolhardy to reform Head Start based entirely on my recommendations given the limitations of current knowledge.  The evidence is just not that strong given what is at stake.  Fortunately, we have a better alternative.  Allow Head Start and Early Head Start agencies to innovate, experiment, and find their own way to strong results.  A systematic program of research should be launched in which Head Start and Early Head Start agencies propose new approaches to be tested in randomized trials. Experimental programs should be given a blanket waiver from Head Start and Early Head Start performance standards and most nonfinancial reporting requirements as long as they adhere to their own proposed plans (which will be monitored as part of the randomized trial).  This systematic program of research would provide much better guidance for early educational intervention than is now available.  In relatively short order Head Start and Early Head Start could fulfill their promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director, National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)


Why I’m Going to Head Start

August 15, 2011

As many of you know, I recently transitioned to a new position as Senior Vice President for Early Learning, Research and Training at Acelero Learning and will no longer be co-director of NIEER. I’ve loved my job at NIEER – the research has been interesting and my colleagues here and elsewhere have been a pleasure and inspiration. I am especially grateful to the Pew Charitable Trusts for the funding that has formed the foundation for NIEER’s work. My reasons for moving on are numerous but I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why I decided to move to Head Start. Acelero Learning is a Head Start grantee that works with delegate agencies in three states to deliver services to children and families. At the Support Center in Harlem we provide the delegates with technical assistance and guidance across all areas of Head Start services.

Why Head Start?

I started my career in early education in Head Start teaching in the Ann Arbor public schools’ Head Start classroom, but even before I knew what career I wanted I worked as a Head Start summer volunteer in high school. I have since served on Head Start boards off and on and I have a firm belief that Head Start can make a significant difference in the lives of young children and their families. It has worked in the past, and it works in certain places now. As a nation, we have to figure out how to make it work everywhere, consistently, while protecting and even expanding the funding required for Head Start to be effective. I am coming home to Head Start because I want to figure out how to produce in every center the lasting impacts on achievement that I know are possible in Head Start. Of course, this means that we in Head Start must face facts and resist the temptation to reject criticism or make excuses.

Why Acelero Learning, Inc.?

Acelero is unique. We are the only for-profit Head Start provider, and outside of the municipal “super” grantees, we are one of the largest Head Start providers in the nation, serving more than 3,800 children ages zero to 5. Our mission helps explain my choice:

The mission of Acelero Learning is to bring a relentless focus on positive child and family outcomes to close the achievement gap and build a better future for children, families, and communities served by the Head Start program.

We are serious about closing the achievement gap and every decision is made in reference to this mission. We use data to drive our decisions as well and have instituted a rigorous continuous improvement system at every level of the program from child to family to classroom to center to delegate to grantee. We measure our objectives in multiple ways at each level. For example, for child progress we implement performance-based assessments and are initiating a system for ensuring reliability of scoring and we select a random sample of children for administration of pre-post assessments of standardized measures. At the classroom level, in addition to CLASS observations in every classroom, we also developed a Teacher Success Rubric for teacher self-evaluation and professional development as well as for annual performance appraisal. To increase our ability to close the achievement gap, we operate all classrooms on a year-round basis – this summer alone, we will provide more than 500,000 hours of summer learning time that children enrolled in our Head Start programs would otherwise not have been able to access. We also offer full-day Head Start and extended-day programs whenever possible.

I’m excited to be involved at Acelero with an entire network of dedicated and remarkably capable colleagues. Together we will show that Head Start is a program of which we can be proud. We are determined to close most of the gap at kindergarten entry and significantly reduce the longer-term achievement gap. I look forward to calling on many of you to help us reach our goal and best wishes to you all.

– Ellen Frede, Senior Vice President for Early Learning, Research and Training, Acelero Learning


Early Childhood Education Featured in Principal Magazine

August 10, 2011

NIEER co-directors Ellen Frede and Steve Barnett discuss the critical role pre-K plays in closing the achievement gap in the May/June issue of NAESP’s Principal magazine. Drs. Frede and Barnett note that the availability of preschool is a strong predictor of differences in scores in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a comparison of educational achievement across 65 countries.  They also point to research findings that show national achievement test scores rise with the level of public spending on and quality of preschool education.  Frede and Barnett maintain that a commitment to an effective, quality preschool program could reduce the achievement gap in the United States by 20 percent.  The article from NIEER co-directors also offers principals and other school leaders 10 research-based, practice-tested steps they can take to increase the availability of quality pre-K whether or not they currently offer pre-K in their school.

Also included in the May/June 2011 issue of Principal magazine:  Jacqueline Jones, senior adviser for early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, writes about assessment in early childhood education.  First Five Years Fund director Harriet Dichter writes about pre-K to grade 3 education in Pennsylvania.  University of North Carolina assistant professors Rebecca Shore and Pamela Shue and former principal Marion Bish report on a professional development program in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, designed to prepare elementary principals for preschool.


Human Capital Development: Why Pre-K Needs to be a Capitol Concern

August 5, 2011

It would be difficult to find a more timely report than Attracting, Developing, and Maintaining Human Capital: A New Model for Economic Development, from the Partnership for America’s Economic Success (a project of the Pew Center on the States).  At the same time American families fret over the continued economic doldrums and begin to worry about back-to-school shopping for their kids, the report connects high-quality early education to long-term economic success, pulling from the new book by economist Timothy Bartik.

Bartik’s research makes a strong case for both the short- and long-term benefits of quality early education programs for students, parents, employers, and taxpayers. Short-term, investing public dollars in early education can:

  • Help attract skilled workers with young children, who prefer areas with high-quality education programs to those with low-quality or inaccessible programs;
  • Provide peace of mind to local employees, allowing them to be more productive and fully present on the job; and
  • Increase the demand for highly qualified teachers, who are likely to move to the area as well as spend their earnings locally.

These are essentially the same reasons parents are drawn to areas with good elementary and secondary schools. Businesses want to be in areas rich with highly qualified, happy employees, reflected in years of research showing that public services, including education systems, play more of a role in locating a company than does the business tax rate. Offering peace of mind to parents regarding the arrangements for their young learners has become more important throughout this economic downturn. A 2010 report from the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) found that 51 percent of families with child under age 5 had their child care affected in some way by the recession, even as 57 percent of these families reported child care as an economic necessity.  Investing in high-quality early education could not only go beyond the needs of “just” child care but also alleviate the stress families feel regarding both the quality and cost of this care.

Some may ask, “What about the taxpayer?,” echoing the rallying cry of this age of austerity.  As noted above, quality early education can improve the environments for both families and businesses, improving local tax revenues and quality of life.  Bartik notes that the short- and long-term effects of pre-K include higher test scores. Looking further down the line, quality early learning experiences can reduce special education placements by up to 50 percent through second grade and reduce grade retention by up to 33 percent through eighth grade, both of which significantly reduce the cost of public education. All told, school systems can save up to $3,700 per child over the K-12 years, to say nothing of the crime-related savings of between $2 and $11 per each dollar invested in early education.

Bartik also calls up an interesting statistic in this age of globalization: 60 percent of American workers, including 45 percent of those with a college degree, continue to live and work in the state in which they were raised.  Thus, the investments states make during early childhood to prepare children for school and, eventually, work pay off in benefits to taxpayers of those same states later in life. As any real estate agent can attest, parents are attracted to areas with good schools. Bartik’s research find the testing score improvements attributed to pre-K can improve property values by $13 for every dollar invested.  Creating attracting education systems can also working parents to stay local, benefitting businesses and local tax bases.

Early childhood education does not need to be limited to state efforts. Bartik’s data indicates that as an economic development strategy, half-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds more than holds its own against business tax incentives. At the state level, pre-K benefits $2.78 for each dollar spent, not far behind the $3.14 benefitted by business incentives. At the national level, however, the $3.79 per dollar benefitted by pre-K far outstrips the $0.65 benefit-cost ratio of business tax incentives.  Tax incentives encourage businesses to play musical chairs throughout the country, seeking to cut overhead without necessarily producing more.  High-quality early education, though, starts children on an improved educational and social path that benefits workforce quality into the future.  It is not difficult to understand, then, the federal government’s current Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge that seeks to develop these early learning programs.

As government at all levels continues its belt-tightening, there are those who claim pre-K is an unaffordable luxury, when in reality it is an astonishingly good investment for both the short- and long-term benefit of the nation. While pre-K has not traditionally been considered in the elementary education system supported by taxpayers, using public funds to provide such programs can actually spur current economic growth while preparing America for a prosperous future.  A recent NIEER brief examines current public financing of early learning as well as how the system can be improved.  Advocates of publicly-funded pre-K support early learning not only because it is the right thing for children, but also because it can mitigate some of the long-term deficit ills so recently brought to the national light.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


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