One Area Where Head Start Lives Up to Its Name

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Head Start is the kind of program that seems like it’s just gotta work. Founded in the opening months of the War on Poverty in 1965, the federal program  works with  disadvantaged kids age 3 to 5 (and their families) to provide extra schooling, health care, and nutrition, all in hopes of better preparing them for grade school and beyond. Under both political parties Head Start has thrived and expanded, most recently when President George W. Bush reauthorized the program.

But as the program approaches its 50th birthday, whether, or how well, Head Start works remains a surprisingly lively – Kill it!Fix it!Leave it alone! -- debate. That’s thanks in large part to a multi-year government-funded study on the program’s impact on its clients as they continued their education. Because the kids studied had been randomly assigned to program or not (more people wanted in than Head Start had spots), its results were seen as trumping many previous Head Start studies – and there are lots of them – that in turn presented a mixed picture of how much of a head start Head Start actually provided.

When the Head Start Impact Study’s (not quite) final report came out in 2010, its determinations were disappointing at best. The Head Start preschoolers did better in areas like book smarts, emotional development, and access to health care than their unenrolled peers – many of whom were in some other sort of preschool program -- while in the Head Start. But with the exception of slightly better vocabularies, most of those advantages had faded by the time the kids finished the first grade.  In short, the $7 billion or so spent each year allowed a million or so at-risk kids to use the word “unimpressed” with greater aplomb each year.

A report issued at the end of last year followed those test subjects through the third grade, and the fade narrative hadn’t improved:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.

But among some of the subgroups in Head Start, such as those whose disadvantage goes beyond just being poor, the benefits seem to have legs. That fits in with research on other preschool programs (i.e. not just those stamped Head Start) that finds children with the most issues (so-called “elevated risk factors”) may get the most good from those programs.

A new study from Oregon State appearing in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology finds that kids who aren’t living with a parent get those normal ephemeral boosts from exposure to Head Start, but they also may reap benefits – specifically engendering a good teacher-child relationship -- that aren’t observed when kids still have at least one parent around. It makes intuitive sense – kids without a strong parent figure will glom onto one when it’s on offer.

“Children in non-parental care tend to struggle with socio-emotional development, likely due to the risk factors they experience such as transitioning between homes, special needs, and behavioral problems,” lead author Shannon Lipscomb was quoted in a release. “Perhaps as a result of Head Start’s whole-child focus and standards for teacher qualifications, their teachers may be more effective than caregivers in other types of programs in establishing positive relationships with children who have high needs.”

The research uses the data from the 2010 study to suss out these benefits, and was unique in looking at children living without parents. Keep in mind that Head Start was originally designed to include families in the mix – part of its inherent attractiveness – and so that aspect may not pay off as intended when a kid’s got no family. But it was designed to give a boost to those a step or two behind, and it may be working as intended there.