US Department of HHS
January 2010

This study uses random assignment to answer a specific research question – what is the causal impact of one year of Head Start (2002-2003) on key child outcomes? Drawn from a nationally representative sample of 5,000 children, the analysis examines outcomes for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds receiving one year of the program. It measures results at various intervals (during preschool, kindergarten, and through the end of first grade) in the domains of cognitive development, social-emotional development, health status, and parenting practices.

Researchers found that a year of programming had several positive impacts on school readiness measures one year later, but by the end of first grade, most of these impacts disappeared. A few impacts remained intact: for the 4-year-old cohort - small impacts on vocabulary scores, receipt of dental care, and increase in health insurance coverage; for the 3-year-old cohort – impacts on oral comprehension, closer relationships with parents, less authoritarian parenting styles. The rest of the 420 page report points overwhelmingly to an unfortunate trend: early learning impacts often fade out after a few years.

Despite its gold-star methodology, readers may be left with pragmatic questions about how to improve Head Start programming, whether sustained improvements to child-parent relationships and health outcomes fulfill the goals of the program, and whether (and how) to allocate scarce funds to early learning if it doesn’t significantly improve children’s academic readiness.

In Ohio, policymakers may wonder about the efficacy of not just the federal Head Start program, but the state Early Learning Initiative (which replaced the state Head Start program under Gov. Taft). In light of the less-than-inspiring findings on Head Start, Ohio can be proud that it replaced Head Start Performance standards with its own Early Learning Content Standards (arguably better as they are aligned with K-12 content standards). However, this makes Gov. Strickland’s decision to slash the Early Learning Initiative all the more troublesome.

Read the full report here.

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