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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Thoughts on Today's Release of the Head Start Impact Study

Published:  January 13, 2010

The next few weeks are probably going to be rocky ones for the Head Start community. Results released today from the Impact Study show that children’s gains from participating in Head Start, documented in a 2005 installment of the study, do not last through the end of 1st grade.

Looking forward, we hope that this study might add yet more fuel to two ideas:
  1. Disadvantaged children need more than a one-year hit of high-quality early education. They need the whole shebang – a system of education that extends from pre-K into their primary grades and beyond. 
  2. We have to keep pressing for high-quality classroom experiences that can come from improvements in teacher training in Head Start and all pre-K programs.
The story starts like this: In the fall of 2002, researchers started to study two randomly selected groups of poor children: those who got into Head Start programs and those who didn’t. According to data collected a year later, the children in Head Start seemed to be better prepared for school on several, though not all, indicators of school readiness. Debates raged about how significant these results were, but the data at least showed several areas in which they were better prepared than their counterparts. They were better, for example, at identifying letters and had picked up more writing skills.
Now consider today’s news from the Department of Health and Human Services: By the end of 1st grade, children’s participation in the program no longer shows up as having much of an impact on various cognitive and social-emotional measures, at least on the sample as a whole.
“The study showed that at the end of one program year, access to Head Start positively influenced children’s school readiness,” HHS reported in a press release. “When measured again at the end of kindergarten and first grade, however, the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied.”
HHS submitted this installment of the Impact Study to Congress today as part of its obligation under the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start, which asked the agency to conduct a scientific study of the 45-year-old program’s impact on young children. These results are likely to reverberate around the Capitol over the next few weeks, and we all will need time to digest them in full. (HHS posted the full study and executive summary online this afternoon, and we expect to be writing about more details in the near future.)
But in the meantime, let’s keep in mind several points based on information we already know, either from details about the design of the impact study or from our recent seven-part series (here in PDF) at Early Ed Watch:
  • The study doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the kindergarten or 1st grade programs that Head Start children attended after their Head Start years. That’s not because of an oversight on the part of researchers – it’s because that kind of data just doesn’t exist. But it should. More and better data collection on the quality of classroom experiences through preK-3rd is needed not just in this case but everywhere.
  • The study looked at children who entered Head Start in the 2002-2003 year. It’s possible that a lot has changed in Head Start programs since then, particularly as grantees have begun to gear up for new quality-improvement requirements that became part of the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start law. Variability is inevitable, but we need more information on how Head Start as a whole has improved since then.
  • The question of “fade out” has come up again and again in early education circles, and the question is always posed: “Do the gains of pre-K last?” What we don’t ask enough, however, is whether kindergarten and early elementary programs are structured to enable teachers and schools to actually act on those gains. Perhaps the question should be reversed: do elementary schools help to maintain the momentum? And if not, what can we do to help them do so?
In short, the Impact Study’s results strike us as more evidence that to do right by today’s children, we have to not only ensure that 4-year-olds receive a high-quality pre-K experience, but that children experience high-quality instruction all the way up through the primary grades. We need a seamless, integrated system from pre-K through third grade.
Officials at HHS and the Department of Education – such as Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary at HHS, and Jacqueline Jones, senior advisor on early learning to Education Sec. Arne Duncan – seem to understand this. They talk about building a system of early learning and education that ranges from birth-to-8. Creating that kind of system will not be easy, but it is imperative. We are still waiting to see more signs of federal (not to mention state) policies that can get us there. (It’s worth noting, however, that the Office of Head Start did release information this week on improving its training and technical assistance program.) We still have a lot to learn about today’s study, but early indications are that we have just received yet more evidence of why a fully integrated and aligned birth-to-8 system is so important.


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