Recent Research on the Impact of Head Start

July 12, 2011
by Rebecca Van Maren, Emerson National Hunger Fellow

How effective is Head Start in comparison to other early childhood development settings? That is the question that a recent study released earlier this year by the American Psychological Association sought to find out. Entitled Head Start and Urban Children’s School Readiness: A Birth Cohort Study in 18 Cities, the report was the first of its kind in seeking out the benefits of Head Start in comparison to other, more defined, early childhood settings.

Throughout the years, Head Start has been studied and studied again; however, this specific study took what had been the standard comparison one step further. In previous research, children participating in Head Start were compared to those not enrolled in the program. For example, few three- and four-year-old children were in any form of preschool in the 1960s or 1970s when the Head Start programs were established. This means that many children in the reference group at that time would have received no preschool education. However, in more current studies, greater than 40 percent of three year olds and 70 percent of four year olds are now in some form of school or center based care on a regular basis. This stark difference can have a large influence on the studies’ findings on the effectiveness of Head Start. Also, by comparing only these two groups, we miss out on understanding the true effects of Head Start in comparison to other arrangements.  

However, it’s important to remind ourselves on the important role that Head Start plays for low income families. The cost of child care is often the highest or second highest cost in a family budget. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) report, Parents and the High Cost of Child Care – 2010 Update, reveals that child care prices continue to rise, despite the nation’s economic downturn. NACCRRA found that since 2000, the cost of child care has increased twice as fast as the median income of families with children and the cost of care for an infant in a child care center is more than the cost of college tuition and related expenses in 40 states. As child care costs rise, many parents are shifting their children from licensed programs to informal care that potentially compromises their safety, health, and school readiness.

Comparing Head Start to non- Head Start groups means that the children, while not enrolled in Head Start, could actually be in a variety of care arrangements including prekindergarten, other center-based care, parental care, and other non-parental care. Until now, no study has been able to show us how effective Head Start really is in comparison to other settings — which is why the research around Head Start’s effectiveness had been inconclusive.

The Head Start and Urban Children’s School Readiness research was able to combat that issue by following a cohort of children and asking their parents at age three and five what their child care arrangements were. Parents were able to select which type of arrangement their child attends on a regular basis. By having more than one option, the researchers were able to gain a better understanding of which childcare setting resulted in which outcomes. 

So, to ask the question again, how effective is Head Start? Well, this study was able to find that Head Start was associated with improved cognitive development when compared with parental care or other non-parental care. It showed no significant differences on cognitive development when compared with prekindergarten or other center-based care. However, Head Start increased children’s social competence compared with parental care, prekindergarten, and other center-based care, as well as reduced attention problems. This is important to note, because Head Start isn’t just a preschool program. It provides comprehensive services to the child as well as the family.  The soft skills of paying attention and the social skills that come from Head Start are very important, and part of Head Start’s strength, and should be continued to be built upon.  

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