Head Start: Mend It, Don’t End It

One of the most neglected questions in the ECE policy arena is “How should we respond to the failure to find lasting effects for Head Start and Early Head Start after investing years and many millions in nationwide randomized trials of those important programs?” I say neglected because there is far less awareness of what the research says than one might expect given the importance of the high-quality research effort that represents our best shot at unbiased estimates of program impacts. For instance, I find that few people even know that Early Head Start’s long-term effects have been evaluated through fifth grade.  I addressed this long-simmering question  in an article published today in the journal Science.  At the outset, I wish to make clear that the evidence does not lead me to the conclusion that we should end these programs, but that they need major reform.  Let’s start by quickly reviewing the evidence.

One randomized trial evaluated the impacts of a year of Head Start by following 4,667 children and their families from entry in Head Start through kindergarten and first grade. After one year of Head Start cognitive effects were positive, but fairly small, and the broader the domain the smaller the effects. In follow-up the effects were even smaller.  No cognitive or school progress effects were found in kindergarten or first grade, though one might argue that there is a persistent effect on IQ of about 1/10th of a standard deviation.  This would close about 10 percent of the gap between Head Start children and the average child on IQ.  No effects were found on any teacher-reported measure of social-emotional development or behavior.

Upward adjustments can be made to the findings because not every child followed the random assignment (some assigned to Head Start did not attend, some assigned to the control group found their way into Head Start).  Yet even after such adjustments, follow-up results remain weak.  Additional adjustments could be made for participation in other programs, but these would make little difference, particularly at age 3 when high-quality alternatives are scarce.

A randomized trial of Early Head Start with more than 3,000 infants and toddlers produced results similar to those for Head Start even though most children and families participated two or more years. Effects at ages 2 and 3 were quite small for cognition and social-emotional measures including aggression. By age 5 no effects were found for cognition and only one small socio-emotional effect was found. In the grade 5 follow-up no effects were found on any of 49 measures and the estimated effects were near zero for both cognitive and social-emotional development.

For some in the early childhood field the reaction to these long-term findings has been denial. One claim is that bad public schools offset Head Start’s positive effects.  The national Head Start study finds, to the contrary, that gains in literacy and math accelerate for both Head Start and control groups after they enter kindergarten.  Any wash-out in Head Start effects from the public schools occurs because control children quickly make up the small advantage from attending Head Start.  Others claim that non-experimental studies consistently find long-term effects despite a lack of short-term gains in achievement.  However, the non-experimental studies are not really consistent among one another in either their short- or long-term patterns of effects.  Their positive long-term results likely result from chance variation and methodological failings rather than real effects.  If effects are not evident at fifth grade, they won’t be later.

Once we accept these disappointing findings, why not just end the programs as Joe Klein recently argued in Time magazine?  I offer two reasons.  First, America cannot afford to let so many children fail academically and socially because they are poorly prepared.  Second, some other preschool programs have succeeded to a much greater extent, and Head Start can be reshaped to be similarly effective.

Table 1 compares the initial impacts of Head Start and some other large-scale programs.  Pre-K programs with above average standards and funding are found to produce larger effects than Head Start in rigorous studies including a recent randomized trial.  The Chicago Child Parent Centers, which are similar in key respects to the state pre-K programs in Table 1, have been found to produce effects on achievement and social development into adulthood as well.  Reshaping Head Start to more closely resemble these programs would enhance its effectiveness. A quantitative summary of research on early educational intervention over the past 50 years adds weight to this argument as the Head Start and Early Head Start comprehensive services approach is associated with weaker effects, possibly because it reduces the educational focus.

Table 1. Achievement Gains from Pre-K

My prescription for improving Head Start includes increasing the percentage of funds spent inside the classroom, building a stronger connection to public education, and eliminating much federal oversight and related paper work.  Early Head Start needs the same freedom from regulation, but should adopt home-based models that have a strong evidence base (Olds’ Nurse Family Partnership) as well as strengthen center-based options. Give programs a set amount of money, audit the books, and assess teaching and learning.  Teaching should be highly intentional and include direct instruction one-on-one and in small groups.  A new continuous improvement process should be put in place for learning and teaching.  The Obama administration’s plans for re-competition of low-performing Head Start agencies should be implemented as soon as possible based on both measures of teaching and broad measures of child progress.  Early Head Start should be regarded as an experimental program and subject to large-scale research for at least the next five years.

No doubt, these recommendations will be as controversial as is my longstanding recommendation to increase the amount and quality of education required of Head Start teachers and to increase their compensation accordingly.  Head Start teachers should be given the opportunity to return to school with tuition and fees paid by government loans that would be forgiven if they remain in Head Start five years later.  The quality and content of the programs they attend should be subject to an approval process to be eligible for these forgivable loans.

Even if they were not controversial, it would be foolhardy to reform Head Start based entirely on my recommendations given the limitations of current knowledge.  The evidence is just not that strong given what is at stake.  Fortunately, we have a better alternative.  Allow Head Start and Early Head Start agencies to innovate, experiment, and find their own way to strong results.  A systematic program of research should be launched in which Head Start and Early Head Start agencies propose new approaches to be tested in randomized trials. Experimental programs should be given a blanket waiver from Head Start and Early Head Start performance standards and most nonfinancial reporting requirements as long as they adhere to their own proposed plans (which will be monitored as part of the randomized trial).  This systematic program of research would provide much better guidance for early educational intervention than is now available.  In relatively short order Head Start and Early Head Start could fulfill their promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director, National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)


  1. I don’t know why each time people ask for more money in order to do better. Can we use the same money but use it more efficiently? For example no where in Head Start program it talks about investing on educating the parents. No matter how many great teachers and facilities you have, parents are the first teachers and the most influential. Can we, just by spending a small amount, provide some brochures to mothers coming out of hospitals after giving birth, highlighting the importance of mother-baby attachment, activities they can do with their infants, early learning, and even some basic knowledge about how brain develop? Now with so much debt people should think how to use a dollar to get 2 or 3 dollar value

  2. Dan–Head Start and Early Head Start do in fact educate parents as you suggest. It doesn’t seem to be working very well. There may be more effective ways of doing this, but they are not being widely used. I don’t ask for more money for Head Start to do this.

  3. Steve – sorry did not mean to make accusation. But the methodology needs to be looked into very carefully and see where money can be spend more effectively. To me, if you put kids coming from families where these kids are not loved and they are nobody, no matter how much effort you make it’s useless. If we put some criteria in terms of what type of babies get into the program, I’m convinced results will be much different. For example, we need to check if the baby is secured attached to the mom or dad so to be emotionally ready to learn, check if the parent believes that education can change his/her child’s life and is committed to devote his/her time and heart for the change so the parent can teach the child basics during daily life…again, parents matter more than public effort in these early years so the education has to start from the parents during prenatal classes and continue after the birth with followups in groups like Head Start. More parents believe in early learning, less spending is needed for Head Start classes because parents will do their every day activities to help the child to learn.

  4. I think this is a very thoughful /thought provoking article. Having worked in Head Start for many years I believe the core of the program is good. Unfortunately, the outcomes don’t reflect the value of the program. I have a few questions; would the children be worse off without the program? Since the program is a comprehensive service model the only area that is widely reported about is the education area, very little information is reported about the health outcomes, social serice outcomes, nutrition, etc., are the outcomes in these areas significant? I totally agree there needs to be change. The program segregates children socio-economically, would there be better outcomes if it didn’t? I agree with Dan that the parent piece is key. Professional Development and ncreasing the skill level of the teaching and management staff is critical; this will need financial support. It is a complex problem but these children and families are the most vulnerable. As the most vulnerable they need the attendtion of all of us as they are the future “achievement gap” if not supported early. Since there are other programs that have better outcomes these should be looked at as possible directions. Thank you for offering a solution to not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I hope for the sake of society that we can find some really good, conrete solutions to supporting this worthwhile program.

  5. I’m in the technology business and in the business world you always have to look at the investment and look at returns. If investment is not returning as expected you have to look for investing differently. Why educating parents are not effective knowing they are the key to the success of this program? Do parents understand that education is the only way for them to get out and change their lives? Can we help them to understand a bit better their own children and so they commit to make a joint effort? If the program spends majority of money on children but the spending on educating the parents is optional, then I’m not surprised for the outcome. My ancestors 2000 years old already said “the son is a failure because of his dad” – although it’s extreme there is good truth to it. Focusing on creating awareness among low income parents and draw a success path in front of them with good examples (those who changed their social economic layer through education but not celebrities) so both their mind and daily life are tuned to go with Head Start program. You can’t sell a product or service without marketing but so far I see Head Start program being poor in educating the public and it’s run more like academic project than a life changing business

  6. I am currently a Head Start teacher and found this article very insightful! One point that stands out for me is tuition reimbursement for teachers wanting to return to school again. I would go even further to say all Head Start teachers should be required to take classes while they are employed by the school. Preschool is a wonderful yet ever changing environment. Research, as seen here through the articles by NIERR, shows we are always learning new ways to teach and pass on knowledge to these children who hang on our every word! Head Start employs teachers with expectations to prepare children for future learning, instill social emotions skills and role model a healthy lifestyle – who could not benefit from more training in all of these areas???
    And in response to the comparison of Head Starts to public preschool programs, I would like to give credit to all Head Start Family Advocates who give that extra promise that the entire family will be taken care of when their child is enrolled in the program – something many public preschool programs could not put in writing.
    Head Start is something this country should be proud of, and I agree there needs to be a lot of work done to bring it up to today’s standards. But this should be simple if we are always learning, always changing! Educate our teachers to better take on the changes that are inevitably ahead. Educating for a better tomorrow – this is, after all, what preschool is!

  7. It is a complex ecosystem how a child grows up. There are at least 3 factors – parents, friends, teachers, that at each age of a child will exercise critical influences. For 0 to 5 (preschool age), it’s parents who are the most critical – we only need to look at some research results on developmental science or theory of Piaget to understand it. I did not say teachers should not get further training. But we are talking about how to make this program more effective. So if you want effectiveness, spend more money on educating the parents. For elementary age, however, teachers become more critical and so you want the most qualified people to teach elementary. Head Start can’t be a nice program to have. It has to be a must have as the source of help for those parents who don’t want their children to continue their hard life. If parents don’t care, no matter how much you spend and how great the teachers are, the result would still be disappointing.

    In the mean time, from teaching point of view, most of effort are spent on literacy and little for numeracy. Those who study early learning, such as researchers at Infant Math Lab from Laurier University, will tell you that numeracy will sure bring literacy but not vice versa. Teaching toddlers number concept is the most effective way to help them build a thinking habit and exercises their brains. I hope responsible parties will look into these scientific evidences when looking for improving effectiveness of the program

  8. Clarification: Rebecca Shore and Pamela Shue are at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Thank you.

  9. Head Start and Early head Start teachers and all staff get paid much lower almost half the amount than UPK and other similar Early Childhhod Teachers.
    The need to train exisiting staff and hire qualified staff created a need for more funding.
    Once there is more funding allocated for pay and training we can make these kinds of comparisons because at this point all research is not valid until this appens/

  10. I agree with Dan, don’t ask for more money just use the same amount more effectively! Now I’m a college student doing an essay about how we need more early educational programs or more available information for low-income families. I am having a hard time finding any disagreeing parties to having more programs. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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  13. First, I agree with Steve and Claudia that more money is needed to recruit, pay and provide edcation/continuous professional development to the teachers who are asked to spend many more hours working with young children than traditional public schools.
    I have worked with Headstart centers and I was appalled at the educational/salary scale. These are our most vulnerable children. Sometimes half of one class can have children already identified with IEPs, and may come from homes in which there may be as many as 5 different languages spoken. Yet we don’t even demand a master’s degree for the head teacher nor a college educaiton for the asst/support staff.
    I hate to keep quoting Risley and Hart (2003) but oral language is the key to a child’s school achievement from 0 – 5. If the home environment can’t provide a rich language environment in English, which is the language required in school in our country, then the teachers who spend the largest amount of time with children should provide that language. Often teachers are unaware of how simple questions should be posed to elicit not ‘yes/no’ answers but more complex responses. Or how to introduce language, yes , Dan, that is mathematically based along with literary terms.
    Finally, families. Of course, in an ideal situation families need to be educated on how they can help their children. But these are families who may be single parent, grandparent, working, taking care of several children, living in crowded apartments that have no privacy. How do we structure the times/places for them to come to us(or provide the funds for outreach)? What about small Headstarts where one person is BOTH the educational director and family liason? We are asking Headstart personnel to perform at levels that many cannot simply perfrom due to how many hours they are there. Every day they have to address crises that unexpectedly arise and need immediate attention, before any attention can be given to ongoing curriculum.
    The problems with Headstart are not unique. We see the same issues with teachers in high needs elementary schools. There is no one fix for all. But we could start by recruiting and paying teachers, who have demonstrated high intellectual potential and committment to early childhood education, what we pay our service workers. Other countries pay for their teachers’ education in return to a time commitment.
    Barbara Gsovski

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  16. The reason many teachers are asking for more money is because we do as much as board of education teachers. I will go as far to say that we do more. Our regulations are stricter, which makes for sometimes more complicated days. The fact that a BOE preschool teacher makes double or more what a head start teacher makes is ridiculous. I qualify for food stamps. In the summer, we only recieve low earnings, which for me is only 350.00 EVERY TWO WEEKS. I am now in danger of being evicted from my home. As long as I am here, I will continue to do what I love, whether or not I recieve adequate pay. The children and families are very important to me. However, when Head Start is beginning to require more advanced degrees for teachers, then the pay scale should be implemented as such. I also care about MY family, and Head Start directors and federal funding should start to care about us too. We are NOT daycare. We are teachers, and should be treated and paid as such.

  17. I agree with much of what the author says. The area that isn’t addressed is the comprehensive services including health, nutrition, social services and parent engagement. These services are the bedrock of the program and are often overlooked when researching the effects of the program. I definitely agree that an overhaul is necessary. A look at how programs are being administered us necessary and long overdue. Recompetition is a great first step.

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