Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hitchcock: Is Head Start Working?

Editor's Note: The following opinion column was published by the Idaho State Journal and appears here with the author's permission.

by Leonard Hitchcock

The final portion of a Health and Human Services (HHS) Department report on the Head Start program was published in December of 2012.  Fox News and the Heritage Foundation pounced on the report immediately, alleging that it proved Head Start to be a “completely ineffective program” (Fox News), and provided “definitive evidence that the federal government’s 48-year experiment with Head Start has failed children and left taxpayers a tab of more than $180 billion.” (Heritage Foundation)

In their detailed accounts of the report, those two ultra-conservative organizations utilized a common tactic of the far right when describing government programs for the poor, viz. accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive.  I would like to attempt my own “fair and balanced” account of the HHS report in what follows.

The Head Start study began with a randomized selection of test subjects from a pool of children who qualified for admission to the program, i.e. children whose families had sufficiently low incomes.  Two pairs of cohort groups were formed, one for 3-yr.-olds, one for 4-yr.-olds.  In each pair, one group attended Head Start and one did not (i.e. there was  a “treated” and  a “control” group).  Treated 3-yr.-olds attended Head Start for two years before entering kindergarten; treated 4-yr.-olds attended Head Start for one year.  A variety of achievement tests were given to the cohorts from the end of the first Head Start year through the end of third grade.  Because Head Start seeks to address “the whole child,” those tests addressed not only cognitive skills but socio-emotional skills, health, and the parenting practices of those who cared for them.

Here is a broad-brush depiction of the results of the study:

1)    For the 3-yr. old cohort in their first year of Head Start, and the 4-yr.-old cohort in their single year in Head Start, all tests revealed that the Head Start groups had significantly higher achievement levels than the control groups.  This occurred despite the fact that both control groups were permitted to attend day-care or preschool programs other than Head Start, and roughly 60% did so. 
2)    In the second year of Head Start for the 3-yr.-olds, control group members were permitted to enroll in Head Start, and a great many did, with the result that the achievement gap for that cohort virtually disappeared by the end of that year.
3)    When the two cohorts entered kindergarten the average test score differences between the Head Start and control groups began diminishing, and the two groups were almost indistinguishable in terms of performance by the end of 3rd grade.

A detailed account of the results reveals an even more perplexing mix of success and failure. For example, Head Start participants from the 4-yr.-old cohort sustained their advantage in reading ability through 3rd grade.  But on the measure of grade promotion, the 3-yr.-old Head Start children’s outcomes were worse than the control children’s at the end of the study.  Parents and teachers disagreed about Head Start impacts upon the 4-yr.-old children’s behavior: parents reported improved behavior through the 3rd grade, teachers reported problems. At the same time, the 3-yr.-old cohort seems to have exhibited favorable socio-emotional impacts, vis à vis the control group, for the entire study period.

Looking at the results for sub-groups that the study tracked, the impact of Head Start was similarly mixed.  Children in the 3-yr.-old cohort categorized as “high risk” due to their family environments showed sustained cognitive achievements through 3rd grade.  Among the 4-yr.-old cohort, Afro-American children showed continuing benefits in both the cognitive and socio-emotional domains through 3rd grade.  White children, however, showed negative impacts in the socio-emotional domain.

A full understanding of the HHS study, and a fair assessment of Head Start, requires knowledge of the relevant research literature.  The surprisingly rapid “fade-out” of test gains made by Head Start students, for example, is not unique to Head Start, but common to pre-school programs in the United States and abroad.  The reasons for that phenomenon are not yet understood.  But what is understood, and evidenced by scores of studies over the past twenty years, is that “early intervention” in the form of educational activities prior to kindergarten, has positive long-run effects.  While the HHS study ends in third grade, other studies have tracked Head Start and non-Head Start students into their adulthoods.  What those studies find is that Head Start kids are more likely to finish high school, attend college, and earn a decent income, and less likely to be out of work, to engage in criminal behavior and to be in poor health.  Economists, including Nobel-laureate James Heckman, have therefore argued(contra the Heritage Foundation) that Head Start provides a significant economic return on society’s investment.

Nonetheless, intellectual honesty justifies only a provisional approval of Head Start.  The evidence that it is beneficial is persuasive, but we do not really understand why it succeeds in some ways and fails in others.  Given the incredible complexity of children’s biological and psychological development and their interactions with parents, teachers and peers, that ignorance is not surprising.  We must hope that eventually, by wielding the tools of scientific investigation, we will come to understand how children learn.  In the meantime, rattling political swords (and misreporting scientific findings) will get us nowhere.

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