Controversies: Does Head Start Work?

This is part two of my early education series.

For additional information on the general impact of preschools, see part one: Is Preschool Necessary?


A lot has been written recently on universal prekindergarten in Oklahoma since President Obama’s State of the Union speech.  Oklahoma’s program has been seen as a national model, due to its broad reach (over 74% children in pre-kindergarten) and its adherence to National Institute of Early Education Research quality benchmarks

There are, of course, detractors. Small government idealists, for example, are against any expansion in the system, especially what can amount to glorified childcare in many cases – and center-based childcare, some research suggests, can do more harm than good for children’s emotional development. Other detractors point out that four-year-olds need to play, not sit at a desk and learn.

Those assertions are valid.  Any literature study on childcare and preschools will indicate that quality play-based education is the way to go for young children – and that this education does not need to be provided by the state, or by private educators. Parents, indeed, can provide all that a four year old needs.

Regardless of these facts, the discussion on prekindergarten is jumbled between mixing childcare, preschool, rote education, and programs for low-income students such as Head Start all into one jumble.

I address much of this in my first article, with numerous citations.  However, it all comes down to this: quality matters. When we’re talking about childcare vs. nanny care or familial care, it matters if the childcare is quality and if the home environment is toxic to the child. When we’re talking about the benefits of preschool, it matters if the preschool has teachers with degrees, high pay, low class ratios, and a belief in play-based education. And, when we’re talking about measurable results, it matters what we’re measuring. A child may not be reading at five years old – but may be showing other measures of early literacy that indeed might be more important at that age. So, the quality of the testing, indeed, matters.

In the end, I concluded what many have concluded before me. Is preschool necessary? Does it work? In the end,  no. It is not necessary. Your child may gain some short term benefit toward being exposed to a classroom environment and being with his or her peers, but keeping your child home from preschool will likely not hamper him or her in the long run. That is, if you are an involved enough parent to be researching this in the first place. But, by all means, for a short-term enrichment, and for your own sanity – do it.  And, if you are choosing between center-based care or a preschool with actual teachers – sure. Go for the preschool – there are fewer negatives.

I addressed all that to some extent in my article. However, I did not address Head Start or universal pre-kindergarten. Suddenly, we’re dealing with massive taxpayer-funded programs that have yet to show measurable results.  On the other hand, we are faced with disadvantaged children, those who may not be hearing enough words in their daily lives to assist in literacy, those who may be facing substandard childcare.

Does, the question goes, Head Start work?

By many indicators, no. Not on the national scale.

According to the Head Start impact study, a randomized experiment funded by the federal government, there was indeed some short-term impacts for three-year-olds and four-year-olds, specifically pre-reading, pre-writing, and vocabulary. However, there were no benefits on oral comprehension, pre-math skills, or phonological awareness.

When the study moved into the first-grade realm, the study showed diminished impacts, apart from vocabulary and oral comprehension. In fact, math skills were higher in the control group than in those in the Head Start group.

Finally, the most damning – the third grade followup.  Although there were significant improvements in indicators during the actual duration of the Head Start program, by third grade, most of the those improvements had dissipated.  Other than a few indicators, there were no differences between the Head Start group and the control group by third grade. The only real positive impact was for the three-year-old cohort in the third grade, with average reading/language arts proficiency scores favoring the Head Start group.

What about Head Start’s other missions?

Most people, including myself, focus on the cognitive development portion of Head Start’s mission. However, Head Start was founded on a ‘whole child’ model, including but not limited to medical, dental, and mental health care; nutrition services; helping emotional and social child development;  and parental training.

The Head Start impact study did in fact measures some of those indicators in addition to cognitive development. Alas, the same patterns applied: some modest gains early on, mostly erased by third grade.

So, Head Start is useless?

Probably a harsh judgment.   It may be true overall, but there are a few confounding factors.

For example, some of the children in the Head Start impact study did not actually enroll in Head Start, and some in the control group did enroll  (although usually in a Head Start center not involved in the study).  A 2008 reanalysis of the preschool outcomes obtained stronger positive effects for the Head Start group when accounting for this change.

In addition, not all Head Start centers are created equal. Some of the Head Start group attended centers with lower emphasis on language and literacy or math.  Forty percent of the students had teachers without a postsecondary degree. The majority had teachers with less than 25 hours of training the year before.

Third, the study did not measure the impact of Early Head Start.  One year of Head Start education likely will not provide lasting changes and/or undo the disadvantages children already acquire by age four. Even though there may be short term gains, in the long term, the home environment and a bad schooling environment for early elementary are going to take over. Some then focus on fixing the schools. Yes, but there are other lessons there, including earlier intervention and a focus on parenting education.

Early Head Start does appear to have some advantages, albeit modest. At the age of three, the program benefited families across child, parent, and family self-sufficiency outcomes. However, ,programs that fully implemented the Head Start performance standards and mixed-appprach programs (home- and center-based services) had broader and stronger impacts. Impacts also varied by sub-groups (race, length of time in program, and risk factors). In the prekindergarten years, students who continued with formal early childhood education exhibited an impact. A grade 5 followup (with a smaller sample size), however, experienced the same ‘fade out’ effect on the full group, but gains persisted in some subgroups. Thus, although short-term gains are stronger with earlier intervention, long-term gains remain problematic.

As a corollary to the failing schools argument: fourth, although the study showed lowered indications of math ability for the Head Start children in kindergarten, that indicator was based only on teacher reports of children’s performance and not supported by scores on three direct math assessments.  And, this is where the actual school attended for early elementary may matter – the control group children attended school reporting a higher percentage of students at or above a proficient level of math than the Head Start children’s schools.

However, the argument that it is the schools that are failing do not hold as much water in most cases. Perhaps the schools are erasing any and all cognitive gains, thereby re-leveling the playing field, but with small exceptions such as the math one above, one cannot argue that the control group children attended better schools and the Head Start children did not – these children were pulled in general from the same sociodemographic group.

It is important to understand that although failing schools is a policy concern, most gains in preschool and kindergarten education are erased by third grade. This is true with any type of preschooling – regardless of socioeconomic status – and it is true in the case of redshirting kindergartners.  I address this in my articles on whether preschool matters and on redshirting, and the Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research Stephen Barnett addresses this in his apologetic paper on Head Start where he claims right off the bat: “Head Start is Effective“. Although I do not make such a bold statement, we are in agreement over some of the problems: measures of improvement are flawed, and Head Start implementation is spotty.

In addition, as Barnett argues,  we have to look at fifth: Benefits of preschool are not necessarily measurable by test scores. Research has shown an increase in high school graduation rates, future economic earnings, and lower crime rates in participants who attended preschool.  Some of those studies are based on Head Start participants, but many are from small sample sizes with intensive programs such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Abcedarian experiment. As Megan McArdle points out, if you look at it from a market standpoint, yes, the return on investment for those programs is huge. However, also from a market standpoint, scaling up such programs leads to spending exorbitant amounts of money. Quality will get sacrificed for quantity. (See: Head Start) And, the small sample sizes of those two preschool darlings mean the results are more likely to be happenstance than statistically significant.

Sixth:  Another nod to Barnett’s article.  The research may be flawed here. In discussions with local educators and literacy professors, I’ve learned that most pre-reading tests do not fully embrace the five pillars of literacy, most importantly, comprehension.  Comprehension also gets shortchanged in most ‘teach-to-the-test’ instruction in the early grades. Hence, the third and fourth grade drop off in literacy – when, suddenly, reading is more than just stringing words together.

Seventh The study could not accurately separate the effects of Head Start versus familial care versus other other early education programs versus substandard childcare. We know that substandard care has a negative effect on children, while quality care has a positive effect on children when coming from bad home environments. The control group children did not stay exclusively in parental or familial care.  In fact, the control group were in non-parental care for more hours per week, on average.  The results of the impact study do not augur well for Head Start writ large as a program, but it would be incorrect to conclude that early childhood programs have no impact for disadvantaged children, as many in the control group also attended early childhood programs. Instead, the results indicate Head Start does not have a comparative advantage in early childhood education. That makes sense, given the haphazard way in which it is implemented (and, as small government advocates would likely point out, given that federal government does not by any means have an advantage in effective programs).

Therefore, what if Head Start and universal prekindergarten programs were implemented via best practices models?

We will explore that next, in looking at models from Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida.

After that, policy proscriptions that come out of all this research, based on small government and market-driven principles.


Controversies: Is Preschool Necessary?

You are a mother of a soon-to-be four year old in Tulsa. You have to decide which preschool he or she will attend next year. What do you do?

First, let’s look at your assumptions. Does your child actually need preschool?

Need is a strong word. Will your child benefit from preschool? In a nutshell – probably.

Some research suggests that if you are an educated parent who spends time talking and learning with your children, that your child probably will not gain any extra educational benefit from preschool. Further, the type of preschool education (how many parents are researching the heck out of Montessori vs. Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia?) matters even less.

Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing.

This seems a bit confusion in the light of much research indicating the effects of high-quality preschool are beneficial across all income strata and race indicators, but it’s not as paradoxical as it seems at first. What preschool does, according to twin studies done by University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob, is neutralize the effects of the home environment on students who attend preschool at the age of four. Therefore, students who come from disadvantaged situations – including those who have childcare providers or parents who do not engage with them on a high level – benefit the most from a quality preschool situation. The home environment factor accounts for the increase across all socioeconomic and race indicators when looking at preschool benefits as a whole. In addition, some research suggests any academic advantage gained by sending a child to preschool fades over time.

So, again? In a nutshell – four year olds need educationally stimulating environments to score well on literacy and math skills indicators in kindergarten and in the elementary years. How they get that environment is up to you.

(As a side note, a lot of the data indicate intervention at the age of four is beneficial – but not necessarily earlier. However,that may have to do with the quality of the intervention and the continuity of care.)

What about socialization?

Is a good literacy and math score the only indicator of success? Not necessarily. Much of early childhood education is focused on helping children learn how to be students, whether it is operating in a structured environment or speaking up in class. There are also socialization factors – how to interact with peers, for example. Those are all also indicators of future success in the elementary years.

So, preschool still may assist children make the transition to kindergarten smoother, which sets them up for future success. This, of course, means the decision to send a child to preschool is a very child- and family- specific decision.

Notice the mays here. There is evidence that preschool helps even the educationally-advantaged child by improving social skills.

However, parental involvement in social-skill modeling is just as, or perhaps even more, important.Preschool teachers may help with some of those skills where parents don’t (or, suggest to parents on how to teach these skills). But it is by no means necessary that a child needs to go to preschool to learn how to interact with peers.

Consider this. Socialization is not the same as socializing.  Socialization is the art of learning social skills; socializing is interacting with peer groups.  Glen Dewar argues that center-based care may increase levels of aggression in students, citing Tucker-Drob’s twin studies as well as other studies (discussed in more detail below). However, the studies do not necessarily distinguish between daycares and preschools, and do not distinguish between the quality of care.

Finally, the fact that preschool may help children become good students in a structured learning environment may not really speak to parents who don’t desire their children in a structured environment – for example, many homeschoolers. Homeschooling, of course, turns the educational value of preschooling on its head as well, as most homeschoolers (and many other stay at home parents regardless of their choice of kindergarten) don’t wait until the magical age of five to start teaching anyway, thereby ‘homeschooling’ their preschoolers.

This still begs a few questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Childcare versus preschool versus prekindergarten:

One issue with the various studies out there is that the terms are often mixed. As I stated in my private schools post, it is difficult to distinguish between center-based daycare and preschool, especially as some centers provide daycare for younger children but preschool-like curricula for older children. In addition, the terms preschool and prekindergarten are often treated as interchangeable (In the latter case, we will attempt to use the term prekindergarten only when referring to a public school program occurring on-site at an elementary school -basically, an extra year of public school before kindergarten).

One study indicates that for disadvantaged children, any sort of center-based care, including daycare, provides a comparative advantage over parental care or informal familial care. The study is complicated by the fact the parents self-reported the type of care their child received (ex: center-based daycare or preschool). In addition, some children received a mix of care (for example, preschool plus a grandmother caring for them on off days).  Nevertheless, the results of the study seem to be consistent with conventional wisdom -those disadvantaged students benefited most from prekindergarten collocated with the elementary school, less from private preschool, and even less from center-based daycare. But all had a positive effect in comparison to no center-based care at all.

This is in stark contrast to studies indicating that center-based care pales in comparison to nanny or familial care – but in those studies, 1.) the quality of the center based care was not discussed, 2.) the type of center based care was not discussed, and 3.) the quality of nanny or familial care was not discussed.

Some other studies have shown positive effects of center-based on groups of children, mostly disadvantaged children but also other, more advantaged groups of children. At the very least, the studies have shown no negative effect if the quality of care was considered high. However, again, these studies did not often distinguish between types of center-based care (preschool vs. daycare) and did not compare with home-reared children.

A 2007 federally-funded study indicated that four years of center-based daycare correlated with slightly higher teacher-reported aggression by students by sixth grade. In fact, there may be lasting effects of daycare stress.  However, the fact that the aggression is teacher-reported,the length of time in daycare necessary to make a difference, and the very very small increase in aggression these reports suggest, makes the ‘danger’ of daycare in this case not every significant. In addition, the study shows that the quality of mothering has a much higher effect than anything about the daycare itself.

What can we draw from those mixed results? The type and quality of care matters. High-quality center based care can make a difference in overcoming bad home environments. Otherwise, it’s not certain that kids are better off in daycare or preschool centers as opposed to at home.

So, centers=good,usually when it comes to disadvantaged children. What about in-home daycare?

Research from 2007 indicates that toddlers and preschoolers in mixed-age settings, especially among large groups of children, experience some negative effects within in-home daycare.  Toddlers, especially, appeared to receive less-sensitive care, and preschoolers displayed more aggression. But again, this seems to be relative to the quality of care provided in the in-home daycares studied.

So mixed ages is bad.

Not necessarily. In childcare, maybe. However, educationally, mixed ages may be beneficial to the student.

We’ll look into this more later.

So what you keep emphasizing is that quality matters.


But, can sending a child to daycare (before preschool age) harm their emotional development with their mothers?

Probably not. Again, quality matters. However, in numerous studies of the long-term emotional effect of daycare on infants to kindergarteners indicate that although their quantity of time with their parents was obviously lower, the quality was unchanged, likely because the working parents made up for lost time. In early childhood, there may even have been some emotional benefit to entering daycare, although the beneficial effects diminished by the time the children reached kindergarten and first grade.

Okay, you got me. Center-based care is generally good. Quality preschools and prekindergarten is best. So, what about full-time vs. part-time preschool?

A 1999-2001 study on a universal four year old program for Francophone students in Ontario compared half-day students (1999-2000) to full-day students (2000-2001).  The results highlighted almost across-the-board positive results for the full-day students over the half-day students, including superior vocabulary, comprehension, and adjustment to academic learning.  The results did not highlight any difference is psychomotor development.

However, the results may be complicated by the fact that it surveyed Francophone students in an English-speaking province.  Much of the goal of the program was to encourage the use of French both in school and at home. In some ways, the program appears to resemble an immersion experience as many of the students spoke English in their daily lives.  It may therefore be more difficult to parlay those results into something useful for the typical preschool experience.

However, there is one notable result.  Teacher reports indicated students in the full-day program exhibited more hyperactive behavior, inattentiveness, and less willingness to share.

What IS a ‘quality pre-school’?  Do I need to find a Montessori program or a Reggio Emilia program?

I wouldn’t worry about choosing between the specialized teaching styles. That’s not the marker of quality we’re talking about. We’re looking at the teacher certifications, teacher pay, and teacher-to-student ratio – something we’ll discuss further when exploring Oklahoma’s quality system.

What about learning the three Rs? That comes into play, right?

No. In fact, play is the operative word here.

Noted blogger Penelope Trunk, with her typical acerbic style, took President Obama to task with her entry, “Univeral Pre-K is Bad for Everyone. ” Look, at first, I was expecting to agree with her wholeheartedly. Offensive or not, Trunk often cuts to the heart of the matter. And, as a small-government lover myself, I don’t generally like universal anythingˆ.

One of Trunk’s many objections stems from the fact that the early childhood years are better served by play rather than academic learning.

That idea is backed up by a ton of research.

Formal instruction may hinder a young child’s creative learning skills. For example, in two separate studies, when young children were given a toy and able to explore it own their own, they were able to discover the various features of the toy and even come up with novel uses of their own. When an authority figure showed the child how the toy worked – whether by demonstrating only one aspect of the toy or providing an illogical use of the toy – the children played the way they were shown and did not discover new ways to play with the toy. (See the studies here and here)

Let’s return to the Francophone program in Ontario. As I stated earlier, the full-day students appeared to have a decrease in social and attentiveness skills relative to the part-day students (based on teacher observations). Why? The study authors speculate:

These two results could be explained by a higher level of fatigue among children who attended the full-day program for 4-year-olds. The parents and program administrators noted that the children in the full-day program were tired at the end of their day in class, while this remark was rarely made with regard to children in the half-day program. …our results may indicate that the adaptation of a half-day program to a full-day curriculum does not produce an improvement in the behavioral development of children.

While we lack sufficient data to explore this increased level of fatigue, it is possible that teachers in the full-day preschool program focus more attention than did teachers in the half-day program on providing pedagogical activities to prepare children for the academic learning of the first grade. Therefore, they may have relinquished a play-focused educational approach that targets children’s overall development. As such, the paper-and-pencil activities completed by the children may have benefited their academic development at the expense of the anticipated positive effects on their socialization and behavior.

In fact, too much formal instruction in the early education realm may lead to children’s being mislabeled as ADHD and may negatively affect the perception of boys’ behavior in the classroom, thereby increasing a gender gap in grades. In addition, the lack of play may affect emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.

We will dig more into the research regarding play-based education in follow-up posts.

But Trunk confuses preschool with a place where children cannot play.

Can a stay-at-home parent provide this level of play education? Sure. Of course, the stay at home parent may instead decide to chunk her child in front of the TV for hours at a time to get a break (I’m pointing fingers at myself here). Can a child care facility provide this level of play education? Sure. Of course, the childcare facility might be more focused on getting kids to eat on a schedule, sleep on a schedule, and stop hitting each other.  Can a preschool provide this level of play education? Hopefully. Of course, the preschool may instead be focusing too much on rote memorization and ABCs in order to prove parents that they are ‘teaching’ their children something.

And therefore we again reach my bottom line. Is preschool necessary for your child? No. Can it be helpful? Yes. But, it’s going to be an individual decision.

Next Up: State- provided quality preschool education – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, what that means for universal Pre-K and HeadStart, and if the immersion education and age-banded classes offered in some Tulsa classrooms is beneficial.

After that: Private educational models – Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so much more.

After after: A new look at redshirting and greenshirting kindergarteners, and more on play-based education.