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Head Start works.

A new study is sparking a debate about just how well the early education program works because it shows Head Start’s impact fades out during the first four grades of elementary school. Now some analysts are using the findings as political leverage to suggest overhauling the program or cutting its funding.

Before policymakers start slashing funding, they should consider this report is simply the latest in a growing body of research on Head Start’s effectiveness, and plenty of that research suggests that Head Start works.

Take a step back and you can see decades of studies that highlight Head Start’s positive short-term and long-term impacts on students and their families. Research shows it helps increase high school graduation rates and school readiness. It reduces elementary school costs, such special education placement and grade repetition. One 2010 Montgomery County report found children that enrolled in a full-day Head Start program were 66 percent less likely to need special education services in kindergarten than their peers.

In fact, Harvard University’s David Deming estimated Head Start’s long-term impact “is about 80 percent as large as the gains from the Perry Preschool and Carolina Abecedarian” programs, two of the most respected approaches to early education in the nation.

And Head Start costs a lot less.

The latest report, though well done, examines a part of Head Start’s story, but far from all of it.

“It (the fadeout argument) also overlooks the fact that many Head Start children move from a nurturing early education environment into low quality elementary schools. Gains made in early childhood education must be sustained with quality education. Yet, throughout the course of their education and lives, Head Start graduates tend to be more persistent in their education, more inclined to healthy behaviors and less inclined to be involved in criminal activity. Early Head Start and Head Start are programs on which to build and improve — not to cut,” Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman wrote in a 2010 letter to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

When judging Head Start it is critical to consider the rest of the program’s story because it does a lot more than a traditional preschool. Head Start takes a comprehensive, whole child, approach. That means it is designed to give students a good start on reading, writing and arithmetic, but also on their nutrition, and medical, dental, and mental health. It also works with parents on creating healthy childrearing practices and building better lives.

All of this support should pay off in elementary school and later in life. Head Start, for example, cut mortality rates among 5 to-9-year-olds by up to 50 percent and reduced graduates’ chances of being booked or charged with a crime, 300 U.S. researchers told Congress in a 2011 letter asking legislators not to cut Head Start funding.

The current debate about Head Start should not be about which studies paint the most accurate picture of Head Start. Instead, policymakers should look at the universe of reliable research for help on how to make an established program even better. Far from dismissing the latest Head Start impact study, we should see it for what it is: another step in our understanding of how Head Start works and how it could work better. In a congressional debate, legislators should also draw from the many model and high-quality Head Start programs around the country and the program’s half-century track record.

Head Start certainly can be improved, and the Obama administration is taking steps, including its re-competition for selected programs. But, changes should be based on a thorough review of rapidly evolving research about best practices in early learning. The bottom line is researchers are still working on a clear picture of Head Start’s effectiveness.

With Head Start Congress and President Barack Obama have a wheel that has been rolling for nearly fifty years. They can use research to make it roll even more smoothly. But, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel because it works.


[1] Zhao, Huafang; Modarresi, Shahpar 2010.  Evaluating lasting effects of full-day prekindergarten program on school readiness, academic performance, and special education services.  Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.). Office of Shared Accountability, Rockville MD.

[1] Early Childhood Intervention and Life-Cycle Skill Development: Evidence from Head Start, David Deming, Harvard University draft: June 2008


Paul Nyhan is working with the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP on efforts to increase investments in high-quality early education and he also writes the early education blog, Birth to Thrive Online.



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