Looking for our new site?

Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

< Back to the Education Policy Program

First Thoughts on Study of Head Start's Impact on 3rd Graders

Published:  December 21, 2012

On a day that many educators and office workers are madly finishing tasks or already traveling to prepare for the holidays, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released results from a long-awaited study on whether children's gains from Head Start still show up four years after students have exited the program. 

Findings from the first few years of the experiment, known as the Head Start Impact Study, showed that children in Head Start do better on several academic and social-emotional measures at the end of that pre-K experience than similar peers with no Head Start experience. But those positive differences appear to be essentially erased by the third grade of elementary school. 

In an interview today with Lesli Maxwell of the Early Years Blog, published by Education Week, I provided some of my first interpretations of these results and what they mean for early childhood. One omission in the study so far -- possibly due to lack of available data -- is the inability to draw conclusions about the potentially varied quality of teaching, not to mention different quantities of instructional time, across Head Start centers.

I'm pleased to see the study's authors state in the executive summary that some quality differences will be addressed in a separate report, but given that many teaching quality tools were designed after the data was collected in 2002, I fear that we will never get solid answers on whether high teaching quality may have made more difference to some children than others, or may be associated with more sustained gains. We cannot forget that as it stands, Head Start quality is incredibly variable, something that new reforms are trying to address.

Also on my mind is the question of the kindergarten year: Were Head Start children arriving in kindergarten classrooms in which teachers essentially repeated the same instruction (identifying letters and sounds, for example) that they had received in their preschool years? If so, there's potential for that lost year to contribute to the fade-out.

Here are a few more considerations I mentioned in the Early Years blog today:

"We can't tell whether time and quality made a difference. We know that the interaction between the child and the teacher matters so much and if you are only in a classroom for three hours a day, four days a week and out all summer long, the experience is much different than for children who go a full day, a full year, and with a teacher that is strong."

"The idea that one or two years of preschool is a silver bullet really needs to be stripped from our minds. The impact study from two years ago and this one now reminds us that the quality of the learning experience in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade really matters too."

Early Ed Watch will cover the study in more depth in 2013. For now, see Maxwell's report: "Head Start Advantages Mostly Gone by 3rd Grade, Study Finds," which includes other perspectives on what the new research tells us. In the coming weeks we'll likely see other reactions, too. First Five Years Fund, for example, already published a statement today about Head Start achieving its primary goal of helping prepare children for kindergarten; more information is available on its website.

Lastly, don't miss our Head Start page in the Federal Education Budget Project and our recent issue brief, Reforming Head Start: What ‘Re-competition’ Means for the Federal Government’s Pre-K Program.



Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.