Head Start Impact Study: Final Report

Taking its cue from Obama’s campaign platform, the current administration has adamantly supported sizable
boosts in “Zero to Five” programs meant to improve the school readiness
of low-income children. But how effective are these programs, beginning
with the iconic Head Start? This major study, commissioned by the
Health and Human Services Department (and released 10 months late),
raises serious doubts. It looked at a representative sample of 5,000 3-
and 4-year-old Head Start applicants and randomly assigned each to one
of two groups--those that were accepted (controlling for those who
didn’t enroll) and those that qualified but were not (but were allowed
to participate in other non-Head Start early childhood or day care
programs). Analysts then investigated outcomes for each cohort across
four key domains: cognitive development, social-emotional development,
health status and services, and parenting practices. The results
revealed that, while enrollment in Head Start had an immediate positive
impact on student outcomes, these advantages largely vanished by the end
of first grade. In fact, in only one measure of cognitive development
did the 3- and 4-year-old Head Start cohorts show significantly better
results at that point (out of 19 and 22 total measures,
respectively). Will this study--just the latest one over forty-five
years to find that Head Start benefits fade away--finally reroute the universal preschool juggernaut? We’re not optimistic. You can read it here.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
January 2010

Janie Scull
Janie Scull is a Research Analyst and Production Manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute