This past week, President Obama warned Americans that, if the sequester occurs, hundreds of thousands of children will lose access to Project Head Start. A new study, however, published by the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has found that students who participate in the $8 billion Head Start program actually fare worse, in some ways, than students who do not.
The study also found that positive effects of the program are not sustained into elementary school.
According to the study, mandated by Congress and published at the end of 2012, the Head Start program “seeks to improve the educational and developmental outcomes for children from severely economically disadvantaged families.”
However, when researchers evaluated 4,667 elementary students, they concluded that the program provided no measurable benefit for children by the time they reached the third grade compared to those children who were in a similar socio-economic group but were not in the program. Of the children who were not enrolled in Head Start, about 60 percent received another form of preschool education, the quality of which was judged to be generally inferior to that provided in Head Start.
The large-scale study found that children who participated in the Head Start program actually did worse in math and had more problems with social interaction by the third grade than children who were not in the program.
While Head Start students averaged better in reading/language arts by third grade, math scores were poorer for children who participated in the program. Parents of Head Start children also reported a significantly lower child promotion rate than parents of children who did not participate in the federal program.
The study demonstrated some disparate results between parental reports of the behavior of some of the children and those of teachers. Ratings of parents of Head Start children yielded moderate evidence of less aggressive behavior in their children compared to the non-Head Start group; teacher reports, however, showed strong evidence of the program having an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms and possible effects on both ability to have close relationships and positive relationships with teachers.
In contrast, at the end of 1st grade, teachers reported more shy behavior and more problems in their interactions with the Head Start children. At the end of 3rd grade, teachers reported more problems in their relationship with Head Start children and a lower percentage of Head Start children in the normal category for emotional symptoms. Children’s own reports showed one unfavorable impact at the end of 3rd grade (peer relations).
In general, the study concludes that even when some positive effects of participation in Head Start are found in preschool age children, those effects disappear once children enter early elementary school.
In terms of children’s well-being, there is also clear evidence that access to Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort.