Head Start Early Results


For those of you who may not know, Head Start is comprehensive program managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services. It was started in the 60’s as part of the “War on Poverty” initiated by the Johnson administration. The aim of the program is to provide an entire package of benefits to young children to ensure they have the greatest opportunity for success going into grade school. Head Start provides education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement assistance to low income families. Each of these aspects, as you can imagine, has literature supporting correlation to educational attainment. Particularly popular (though I don’t know why) is nutrition.

Head start serves some 900,000 children, at a cost of about $9 billion a year today. In 2002, the USDHHS began a randomized, controlled study of the effects of the program on a representative sample of 5000 children. By 2008 data was available through third grade, measuring test scores, social-emotional development, health, and parenting practices. This is probably the holy grail of data on the effects of early childhood intervention.

Unfortunately, the study finds Head Start has little if any significant impact on childhood or parental development past pre-kindergarten:

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.

It is “common knowledge” that the US education system is “in shambles”, but I’ve never really bought that because it’s not true. I don’t deny that there are poorly performing schools, but that’s a funding mechanism issue. What I think happened in the past is that education (like everything else) succumbed to the law of large numbers. What surprises people is that the mean in the US is so low.

Now, I am a proponent of school reform, especially in the funding mechanism. But realistically the marginal dollar spent on education is likely to have a minuscule impact, if any at all. It is far more likely that we will need a revolution in the education delivery method (at a very large cost) to significantly move average educational outcomes from K-12 to a higher equilibrium level.

Update: I have no data on this at my fingertips, but my intuition tells me that if Head Start’s “parenting practices” interventions are to have any impact at all, at age 3-4, they are coming WAY too late.

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2 thoughts on “Head Start Early Results

  1. You should read the book outliers… it shows an interesting picture on education in the US in one part of the book, and the rest is very interesting. It also talks about successes of KIPP schooling and why they are performing so well.

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