Change we need: Responding responsibly to the results of the Head Start Impact Study

One prediction I make confidently is that most responses to the new report on Head Start’s effects will be wrong. Advocates of Head Start will try to “kill the messenger” by attacking the study and rejecting any notion that Head Start needs serious reform. Opponents of Head Start will claim that the program has been shown to be a complete failure. People on both sides will claim that the report shows “fade out” and many will blame poor public schools.

I make another prediction that the Obama administration, with its theme of “Change,” will avoid these errors and chart a new course for Head Start based on what can be learned from this study and others. Confidence in this prediction is tempered by the knowledge that real policy change never comes easy, but I have high hopes. In what follows, I set out six key lessons from the findings, make three specific recommendations for change, and close with some good news.

My comments and recommendations are not based on the Impact Study alone. Science is cumulative. New studies don’t simply obviate everything that has gone before, and the Head Start National Impact Study has to be interpreted in light of the full body of research on Head Start, early care and education, and child development.

What did we learn?

(1) In this study, and in others, Head Start’s initial impacts are modest. Just how small they are is hard to say because many children in the control group attended other programs including preschools in the public schools. Taking into account that some children in the study crossed over (some assigned to Head Start did not go and some control group children found their way into Head Start), the estimated gains are larger, and accounting for other preschool programs attended by the controls would lead to even larger estimates. However, even with generous allowance for effects of other programs, it seems highly unlikely that Head Start produced gains as large as have been found for quality programs elsewhere. Most private preschool programs are lower in quality and less effective compared to Head Start. State-funded pre-K varies tremendously; some state programs are likely less effective, while the best are more effective.

(2) There is little evidence of persistent effects on children’s cognitive and social development. This is exactly what other studies would predict given small initial impacts. Our comprehensive meta-analysis of research on the effects of preschool indicates that after school entry, cognitive effects are only about half as large as initial effects. Given how small the advantages from Head Start access were to start with it is not a surprise that they are no longer discernible at the end of kindergarten or first grade. What will surprise many is that this is not “fade out,” but catch up.

(3) The Head Start Impact Study provides some very interesting graphs that show how fast children learn year by year and demonstrate that the lost advantage overtime is not likely fade out. With the exception of the PPVT (the one cognitive measure with some evidence of persistent gain), learning rates on cognitive measures are much faster in kindergarten than during Head Start. Neither Head Start nor control children made much progress during the Head Start year, which is the fundamental problem. By comparison, kindergarten greatly accelerated learning for both groups, and the acceleration is slightly greater for the control group so they catch up. Many other studies have found that the public schools devote tremendous resources to catching up children who enter school far behind; this is inefficient and expensive, but it works. When initial gains from early education are small, they can be swamped by the effects of more intensive efforts in kindergarten and the early grades.

(4) Head Start does not reach the same level of educational quality as large scale public pre-K programs found to produce much larger gains for children (for example, state-funded pre-K in Oklahoma, New Jersey, or California, or the Child-Parent Centers in Chicago). The quality ratings (ECERS-R) of Head Start reported by the Impact Study are completely at odds with what many other investigators find. The fact that these results are consistent with the Head Start FACES results for quality is hardly persuasive as it is likely the same procedures were used in the two studies. Now I am not saying that Head Start is of poor quality, but the Impact Study found that more than 70 percent of Head Start programs are good to excellent. Even allowing for the shortcomings of the rating system used as a measure of educational effectiveness, this is not credible. Nor is it believable that 30 to 40 percent of the other arrangements accessed by disadvantaged children who don’t have access to Head Start are good to excellent. Other studies find that Head Start’s educational quality is mediocre on average (some are very good, some are not so good), a level entirely consistent with the findings for Head Start effects.

(5) Even the small initial effects found for Head Start may be associated with important, if modest, gains later on in such real life indicators as staying on grade level, special education placements, and high school graduation. Small persistent effects that could lead to these are difficult to detect, and the amount of participation in other programs by the control group makes this doubly hard. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Any longer-term effects found will be unacceptably small.

(6) Other research studies find initial effects of higher quality preschool programs several times larger than those in the Impact Study. Although not all of the advantage is sustained after school entry, the achievement gains that remain are meaningful. The lack of persistent findings in the Impact Study does nothing to overturn or call into question these results from other studies. To the contrary, findings of long-term gains for other programs that have produced substantially larger short-term gains indicate that a reformed Head Start could produce persistent gains as well. However, Head Start will have to be changed to look more like those higher quality programs.

What should we do in response?

To redeem its promise as a highly effective early education program, Head Start will need to change. I have three suggestions to start.

(1) Require all Head Start teachers to become highly qualified and raise teacher pay in Head Start for highly qualified teachers to equality with local public schools. This might be partly or fully accomplished through reallocations of existing Head Start budgets; aside from dental care, it doesn’t seem that services outside the classroom are producing much. In my view, “highly qualified” begins with a BA and specialized training, not just any BA degree and training. We can pay for existing Head Start teachers who want to upgrade their qualifications to go back to school, but we should specify the core early childhood course work requirements. In addition, counseling should be provided to help them navigate higher education and get into and through good programs.

(2) Head Start should implement a streamlined system of “plan-do-review,” the core of which is assessment of teacher practice and children’s learning linked to on-site professional development.

(3) Head Start should “fire” programs with observably poor teaching that fail to produce strong learning gains for children year after year (note that good teachers from these programs will likely be rehired by the new program). This will require hard data on classroom practices and test results for children, but it does not mean testing every child; sampling works fine.

If doubt runs too high about these remedies, the first two at least can be rapidly tested in rigorous studies. (The state of New Jersey essentially conducted a “natural experiment” under court order testing this out, but Head Start could conduct a true experiment).

What’s the good news?

As part of its 2007 reauthorization, the Head Start program was already moving forward on a variety of reforms. In addition, the Obama administration has proposed sweeping changes in Head Start that will go a long away toward turning things around. These proposals include well-crafted approaches to some of the changes I suggested above and much more. They should be pursued with a high degree of urgency and in a partnership between Head Start and the U.S. Department of Education. Despite the greater successes of some state pre-K programs, Head Start is not the only public preschool program that needs reform, and plenty of state and local preschool programs may perform no better (or worse) than Head Start. You can read the details of the administration’s plans for Head Start reform at

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER


  1. I hope that this report is made available to all teachers in the head start programs to self evaluate the programs for higher quality education.

  2. It is incredibly refreshing to read an analysis of Head Start outcomes that is directed neither at HS- bashing nor at ignoring both the room for growth and enormous potential of the Head Start concept. I will make two comments: 1) I agree that grantees should be “fired” for under-performance but there should be an evaluation of the practices of CDI and 2) a concerted effort should be made to transfer talented teachers rather than assume, precipitously, that they are “likely” to be re-hired. Lastly, I’m on a mission to create a National Gold Star Mentor Teacher rating for those teachers who are brilliant, gifted and unlikely to get a degree before they give up and leave the field or, worse yet, end up in ECE management positions for which they are unsuited.

  3. I am very interrested in becoming a political advocate for expanding public preschool programs for all states. Upon graduating with my EC-6 certification from the University of Houston (May 2011), I will pursue more education in the preschool arena offered through our new BAS degree program. I will seek a masters in early childhood education in the near future. My longterm career goal is to be the CHANGE that early childhood education in Texas and all other states need. Our nation’s youngest members of society deserve open access to early childhood educational opportunities, regardless of their parent’s income. I am extremely frustrated with the discrimination these children are receiving. Afterall, their parents’ tax dollars are supporting the head start programs that they are not allowed to attend and can’t afford to pay for privately. My children are ages 21, 11 and 8. I postponed my career to stay at home and teach them what they needed to be ready for Kindergarten. The financial sacrifices made to accomplish this will be realized for years to come. But it was all worth it. I want to give back to those who are not as fortunate as I was to be able to stay home to teach my children. Let me know what I can do on the local, state and national levels to afford every child the early education he or she deserves.

  4. Wendy McIntosh on

    This is a very interesting finding on Head Start performance and its impact on children’s later years.
    I really like 3 recommendations from Steve Barnett.
    I believe that we need to improve our Head Start teachers’ educational level and that all Head Start Teachers who do not have BAs, must be enrolling in accredited universities to complete early childhood degree. Head Start teachers should be given flexible time to attend classes. Teachers must have BA in early childhood education to be hired.
    To support teachers’ education, Head Start should allocate funding which will pay for their education.

    • bridgetokindergarten on

      I am in complete agreement with your idea about Head Start teachers earning their BA degrees in early childhood education or child development. Many of the Head Start teachers are currently pursuing their associate degees in child development technology or early childhood education technology. The problem with these programs is that many are dumbed down to such a level that the Head Start teachers aren’t required to learn much in their technical courses. The technical courses won’t have any real tests or quizzes, the term papers aren’t authenticated for validity, and homework completion is optional. These women will take remedial college English and will struggle terribly with the coursework. After making it throughthat course they’ll take a biology class with no lab and will struggle through that. The remedial college math classes will throw many of these women for a loop so that they’ll have to drop the class and repeat it. Many of these women who teach in Head Start wouldn’t be able to make it through a BS or BA program. They are only qualified to work in unlicensed day care settings. Many of these Head Start teachers aren’t qualified academically to earn a degree in anything except a diploma mill program or a terribly dumbed-down community college program.

      • As a Head Start teacher, who is pursuing a Bachelor’s in EC right now, I would have to agree with your conclusion that many of the people (there are men also, I work with 2 of them) taking courses struggle with the basics and are not qualified for much of anything. However, one reason that you see such a large representation of this “under educated” demographic is that up until recently it has been very common for Head Starts to hire from the pool of parents involved in the program. Whether this is good or bad I cannot say but it has had an impact on the overall educational level within HS itself.
        Furthermore, one can hardly make the argument that teachers need be more qualified without also embracing the argument that they need to be better paid. Good Luck to you in finding highly qualified teachers with a minimum of a bachelor’s who will work for less than 20k a year; I myself make 18. I am using hs to fund my degree, will put in the required amount of time after doing so and then will move on to higher paying options. If you want high quality teachers who will stay in EC the pay has to be commiserate with those requirements.

        • This is precisely the right point. If Head Start is to ever achieve its potential, it must pay teachers adequately. Head Start is not just a little off in this regard; it needs to double teacher pay.
          – Steve Barnett

  5. As a long time supporter of Head Start and advocate I actually appreciate the thoughts made. I agree with the assertion that it is time to focus more attention on teacher quality and closing down poorly performing programs. However, I would take to task the thinking that the health, social, parent engagement, and nutrition services be lessened or cut. In fact I am finding in WA that more social services are needed as families are in crisis. The idea that low income folks can find it somewhere else is not realistic. If they could find it programs would not have to help families locate critical services like emergency housing and food or help them locate a medical home for their child. But programs do need to do this. Being poor does not mean you suddenly have a GPS system that tells you were to locate needed services.

    • I appreciate all of the comments. I would love to hear more about the Gold Star Teacher Mentor idea from Faith. Adrienne, there is much to be done in Texas; you might check out if you don’t already know the organization.

      Joel, this sounds particularly harsh in current economic circumstances, but we need to really dig into and rethink the Head Start focus on health and social services–its just not working. Head Start children are not making the kinds of learning gains they need for long-term success. Obviously, we should feed hungry children, but that shouldn’t get in the way of educating them. Does Head Start simply not have enough money to do all of this? Or, is the money too often poorly allocated and inefficiently spent? How much duplication of effort is there with other state and federal programs? Until we know the answers to these questions, we won’t know how to improve the program.

  6. Faith Morgan on

    Hi, Steve.
    In essence, my Gold Star Mentor Teacher rating idea is to create a credential/rating for teachers who, with or without a degree, are exceedingly competent and could serve as mentors to other teachers.

    This rating could serve as an alternative to a degree only for those highly-competent, experienced teachers who could “pass the bar.”

    This would:
    1. Prevent the loss, to our field, of teachers who are so far into their careers that they would sooner leave than go for a degree.
    2.It would also allow degreed, highly-competent teachers to achieve recognition and the necessary higher pay to keep them in the field.
    3. Identify and employ Mentor Teachers who can help bridge the gap between theory and practice (=quality), in many classrooms, by serving as coaches and role models for degreed teachers hoping to achieve the “Gold Star Rating” or just working on being stronger, more effective teachers.
    4. Cut down on the number of brilliant teachers who go into ECE management for financial or “career” reasons and end up, due respect, doing more harm than good. (As I like to say, “Can I get a show of hands?”)

    My thought was that NAEYC could do less accrediting of programs and more accrediting of Teachers. Alternatively, USDOE or state DOE’s could take it on. I could go deeper on all of this but, in the interest of brevity, I’ll stop there.

    • bridgetokindergarten on

      I agree with you that NAEYC should focus more on accrediting teachers and less time on accrediting centers. There are plenty of Head Start centers that have NAEYC accreditation, but the centers are staffed with underqualified teachers. Many of the long-term Head Start teachers are reluctant to change their fundamental “old fashioned” strict teaching styles in favor of more progressive positive-guidance methods. Many of these women only have their high school diplomas and they teach the children the way they learned from their own mothers. Some of these women are very harsh and controlling and they scare the children into doing what they want them to do. some of these “old fashioned” teachers will say things like, “We ain’t playin’ no more. It’s time to LEARN.” or, “That ain’t nothin’ but scribble scrabble!!!!”. I’ve heard some teachers say to a shy hispanic three year old child, “Why ain’t you participating in the song, child? You need to open your mouth and par-tic-i-pate!!!” I’ve heard Head Start teachers try to get a ESL hispanic child to sing in English in large group even though the child is very uncomfortable. The teacher will try to scare the child into participating by singling them out in front of the class! If the teacher was educationally qualified, well versed in positive guidance techniques, and has implemented the Creative Curriculum effectively, some of these problems would be eliminated. Well, I’m on a soap box now, so I’ll stop writing. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to add my opinion on the subject.

  7. As president of Literacy for Tykes, I have conferred with area head teachers and directors of both Headstarts and public pre-kindergartens. They all report that the children they serve have no books in the home suitable for 3-4 yr olds. Furthermore , they say parents are not reading to their children at all. Complete lack of early literacy exposure has children at a loss that is hard to make up. Early child educators agree that the earlier that parents do lap reading with their 1-3 year old the better the child develops their lifelong learning skills. Late 3 yr olds and early 4 year olds are on the upper edge of that window for neural development.
    These Headstart and Pre-K teachers are very interested in our early child literacy program. I have given up my author’s royalty rights to a book “Teddy Bear’s Favorite Pictures” published by Headline Books, Terra Alta WV , copyright 2008. This facilitates our nonprofit effort to distribute this book, designed with step-by-step parent guidelines to share characteristics of art images with their child.
    Many parents lack confidence in themselves when it comes to literacy. Our program has results reports showing parents “were hesitant at first, but came to realize they could read to their children” with these guidelines. Also parents were delighted to “see their children are actually very interested” in lap-reading with their mom and “reading has become an important source of parent /child activity.” reports a director of a Healthy Family group.
    Research on the growing percentage of kindergartners at risk to fail show one thing they have in common is no books in their homes suitable for children.
    Therefore, since this lap reading with parents is optimally before a class experience, Headstart and Pre-K Head teachers and Directors are very interested in distributing our high-quality home reading book and materials to their Pre-Screening parents this Spring. They will instruct the parents to read the book daily all summer as preparation for the class experience in the Fall. Also these educators have agreed to continue impact with a copy of the book in the classroom and follow-up to encourage parents at parents meetings to continue reading that book. At the end of our year long program we also encourages parents to obtain library cards at the area libraries to continue their literacy growth.
    Obviously, these educational groups cannot afford this high quality home reading program on their own. As a nonprofit 501 C3, Literacy for Tykes seeks funding from corporations, civic groups , and the general public. (see Paypal button on our website ) for the sake of these educational partners. This will be our first time with Headstart and Pre-K so we will see what our 4 mos and 8 mos results reports will show. (Our Phase One results reports are from Human Service groups who serve poverty level and low income families directly, with various at-risk kids, ages 1 yr to 5 yrs.)
    We believe that privately funded resources are essential to improving kindergarten readiness, especially because intervention really needs to start before age 4 years when possible.

  8. bridgetokindergarten on

    It’s about time Head Start began to recruit highly qualified teachers. Currently, many of the Head Start teachers only have their high school diplomas or GED’s. Quite a few are working little by little toward their associate degree in Child Development or Early Childhood Education Technology. The Lead Teachers are required to complete their associate degree coursework by 2013. Wouldn’t you think that if Head Start had chosen to hire only well-qualified teaching staff ten-fifteen years ago then things would be different right now? Perhaps if Head Start had chosen to staff their classrooms with properly trained teachers then the outcome of this impact study would have been more encouraging.

  9. headstarttoknowwhere on

    The Head Start agency has been acting more as an employment agency rather than as a high quality preschool. Head Start tends to place their hiring preferences on demographics and welfare status rather than on educational qualifications. The human resources department of the various Head Start agencies tend to give preference to the single welfare mothers who live in the neighborhood of the school. If a woman is on welfare, is a single mother, has only a high school diploma, and has had children enrolled in Head Start previously; she is much more likely to be offered a Teaching Assistant position rather than someone with a college degree in elementary or early childhood education. If an applicant is middle class, lives away from the Projects, and has a degree in Elementary Education; this individual would not be as likely to be hired. This middle class applicant would have a hard time identifying with the parents of the Head Start kids. The agency would rather hire a woman who is from the same poverty stricken neighborhood who has the same struggles with dead-beat baby daddy’s, bad credit, and the other issues common to a life defined by poverty. Head Start has had the reputation of trying to give these single welfare moms an opportunity that they would not qualify for in the private sector. A private sector high-quality preschool would normally not hire a single mother who possibly has no car, has an arrest record, has a bad credit history, has no assistance from the birth father, and her children are highly dependent on her and her alone. Head Start gives these women the opportunity of a lifetime to be a full time Teaching Assistant with insurance and other benefits. On top of that, the vacation and sick leave are extremely generous. These Teaching Assistants may be out on sick leave 4-8 hours of every 40 hour work week due to their children’s illnesses, children being expelled from school, doctor’s appointments, and a myriad of other responsibilities. The private sector quality preschools can’t run their businesses if they choose to employ someone who is so unreliable. That is why they choose to hire only properly qualified staff. Sure, there are plenty of employment opportunities in unlicensed daycare centers who would be happy to give these women an opportunity to be a Daycare Worker. Unfortunately, many of these struggling daycare centers can’t offer a straight 8-4PM job with good pay, beautiful well-equipt well-supplied classrooms, health insurance, and a generous package of sick leave and vacation time. It’s the Head Start agency that offers them such a sweet deal at their lovely, well-equipt schools.

  10. Wow-wow-wow, Headstarto…”knowwhere,” (?) you clearly know nothing about childcare. There is SO much inaccuracy in your post that it frightens me that you appear to be so sure of yourself. A Teacher is qualified or not-qualified and is hired EXACTLY on that basis, whereas, in any program (private or public), an *assistant teacher* is usually an entry-level position that is filled, in ANY program, by the least/not qualified people and receives the least compensation. MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, in public or private programs, these people are just passing through and do not stay in these positions. It is AGAINST the LAW to consider a woman’s status as a mother or head of household in hiring decisions. (GEEEZ!) Certainly, as a part of its mandate, HS tries to employ parents who are interested in the field of ECE but NO program hires people with criminal records unless there are some extraordinary circumstances ( e.g. was 16 and arrested for spray painting now is 21 and in college). These positions keep these mothers off of TAFDC–that’s “welfare” to folks like you– while they learn parenting best-practices (you know, so YOU don’t have to pay DCF to open a case file on them or for the schools to give them special education). At the same time, they attend classes or job-training programs to reach a level of self-sufficiency where they no longer require state assistance. Good grief! If you are going to be so passionate about something you should at least have the first clue what you are talking about.

  11. As a Kindergarten teacher with a HeadStart School next to our public elementary school, I noticed an outstanding academic difference in my incoming Kindergarteners who attended Pre-school this past school year (2009-10)! Amazingly quite a few students started the year with quite a bit of beneficial retention of skills. But, above all, these students began Kindergarten with some letter sound recognition which set the stage in my classroom for accelerated learning in Reading and later Writing. 100% of my 24 students, along with two who moved out of town, ended the year reading at 1st-3rd Grade level or above. Last school year, my students had similar success. Every school year preceding this one had the gradual success that had led to this one. According to the research by Maria Montessori decades ago, it is documented that 4-5 year olds are capable of reading and writing. Their highest potential for learning occurs up to the tender age of 6. I inform my parents of this phenomena, and they team up with their children and me in providing the best possible academic program. These are the results we achieve year after year, especially with the prior help of our HeadStart and other Pre-schools. Way to to!

  12. Vilma,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve been trying to bring parents of preschoolers on board for UPK and the experiences and testimony of K-3 teachers, like you, is invaluable. This is especially true since ECE seems to be the new target of conservatives looking for budget cuts. They are starting to flood the media with false “common sense” arguments against childcare and preschool funding and it’s SO helpful to have folks like you speaking up!

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