Head Start: Is It Effective?

Posted on

Head Start: Is It Effective?

For many years, Americans have been trying to find a way to end poverty and create a more equal society. Many solutions have been proposed and one of the most common areas mentioned is education. It has been an American idea for a long time that schooling could end poverty in America. Dating back to the mid-1800s, Horace Mann proposed that education was an essential tool to eradicate poverty. He believed that if the country put more money towards education, then people will be able to get jobs and create human capital—all of this done by educating more people. As stated before, this idea came about in the 1800s and today in the 21st century, America is still trying to find a solution to end poverty. One of the most publicly known proposed solutions is called Head Start, a program created by the federal government in 1965 that focused on early education for disadvantaged children, with the hope that this program will break the cycle of poverty. Head Start created a lot of media attention and had the support of many politicians, including the President Johnson—who was also key in creating the program (Garces, Thomas, Currie, 2002). This essay will examine the following questions: what did the creators of Head Start envision as the goals of the program? And to what extent have researchers found effectiveness of these goals?

The Head Start program offered unique ideas in 1965 about a child’s education. Rather than just focusing on classroom learning, Head Start focused on the whole child—which included not only a child’s education but also the health of the child and parent-child interactions at home and with the program. Head Start also offered a shift away from traditional schooling, which measured success by using test scores. The program wanted to measure developmental improvements in and outside of the classroom. Such developmental improvements involve the child’s ability to socialize in and outside the classroom, the child’s physical and mental health, and the child’s cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, with these goals in mind, research done over the years has shown that there are mostly short-term benefits to participating in Head Start and these benefits tend to fade away in the long-term. This essay will highlight some of the most important findings throughout the years regarding education attainment post-Head Start, cognitive and academic abilities post-Head Start, and parent’s influence and view of the program.

The program was inspired by findings by psychologists in the 50s and 60s that intelligence is not necessarily hereditary and it could be “modified through experience” (Rose, 2010, p. 15). This promoted the idea that intelligence is plastic and also one’s environment is a critical factor in development. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations spanning from 1961 to 1969, preschool was increasingly seen as an innovative response to the trials of poverty and schooling. Head Start was introduced in 1965 by the Johnson administration as a part of the “War on Poverty,” and was continued into Nixon’s administration. In the beginning, Head Start was a summer program with 561,000 predominately African American children (Garces, Thomas, Currie, 2002). And students’ ages range from 3 to 5 years old (Oyemade-Bailey, Waxler, Washington, 2006). Head Start was offered in every state and consisted of mainly six-to-eight-week summer projects under a variety of sponsors (Williams, Evans, 1969). The federal government offered guidelines that Head Start needed to provide a nurturing learning environment, as well as facilitating and monitoring utilization of preventative medical care by participants, and providing snacks and meals to the students (Garces, Thomas, Currie, 2002).

First Lady Lady Bird Johnson visiting a Head Start classroom in 1966, about a year after the program began

Head Start offered unique ideas to early education. As stated by researchers Ura Jean Oyemade-Bailey, Trellis Waxler, and Valora Washington, the overriding philosophy of Head Start programs is comphrensive and interdisciplinary: “foster the development of the whole child” and with this, each activity that a child participates in must have an educational component, a health component, and a social service component (Oyemade-Bailey, Waxler, Washington, 2006, p.15). These concepts that underlie the Head Start program were based on the thinking of some of the most professional researchers in the child development area. As author Elizabeth Rose explains, “Head Start was born in a time of enormous optimism, both about the impact of early intervention could have on children’s development and life trajectories and about the federal government’s ability to solve deep-seated problems of poverty and inequality” (Rose, 2010, p. 13). Head Start wanted to beat poverty and erase the harm that it did the child by providing services such as: health services; job services for parents of preschool children; and, the program wanted to encourage community organizing and parent involvement. Head Start had about seven goals in mind. Rose states them as, “improving poor children’s physical, cognitive and social emotional development; strengthening the bonds between the child and the child’s family; increasing a sense of dignity and self-worth within the child and the child’s family; increasing a sense of dignity and self-worth within the child and the child’s family; and developing in both child and family ‘a responsible attitude toward society’” (Rose, 2010, p. 21). Since a start of Head Start in 1965, a lot of research has been done on the effectiveness according to these goals.

The first evaluation of Head Start effectiveness was conducted in 1968-69 by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation-Ohio University. It was the first national assessment of the program, which at that point was serving 561,000 children. The study sought to answer the question: taking the Head Start program as a whole as it has operated to date, to what degree has it had psychological and intellectual effect on children that has persisted into the primary grades (Grimmett, Garrett, 1989)? To answer this, the researchers compared cognitive test scores of first, second, and third grade children who had attended Head Start and compared the scores to children who had not attended Head Start (Rose, 2010). The results of this study were very controversial because of the methods that were used but regardless, the results were very alarming. There were five major conclusions from the study. The first was that the summer Head Start program was not effective in providing any gains in cognitive and affective development that lasted into early elementary grades. The second was that the full-year programs were also not effective in aiding affective development and only marginally effective in making any cognitive gains. The third was that all Head Start students were below national norms on tests of language development and academic achievement and school readiness in first grade approached the national norm. Fourth, the parents of Head Start approved the program. And finally, the full-year programs were better than the summer programs, but they are both unsatisfactory with these results (Grimmett, Garrett, 1989). Many were quick to argue these findings and criticize how the study was conducted. This prompted many more research studies to be conducted about Head Start to see if similar results were found.

With the goals of furthering educational attainment, The Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis, and Utilization Project in 1985 found immediate positive and educationally meaningful effects of Head Start. However, these positive effects were followed by students’ declined performance in the following years. The study also found that there were few differences between Head Start children and control groups in any measure by the second year after graduating from Head Start. Additionally, this study found that participation in Head Start had stable effects for disadvantaged black children through first grade on some measures of school success, specifically those compared to no preschool attendance. Finally, this study found that children with less educated parents, with fathers who are absent, whose family’s income was very low, are likely to experience some academic deprivation associated with these environmental conditions, which could also attribute to the fade away effect (Mckey et al., 1985 cited by Lee, Brooks-Gunn, Schnur, Liaw, 1990). Soon after this study, more research was released called “Where Do Head Start Attendees End Up?” in 1995. This study concluded that as Head Start attendees move into elementary grades, many of the positive effects of the program decline. This decline can be particularly rapid for Head Start children who did not participate in any follow-up interventions after the program ended. This study found that no matter how strong the early boost these children received in Head Start, the fact that their following education is in lower quality schools seems to undermine any of their early advantages. Even with the early benefit of Head Start, these children were moving on to some of the nation’s worst schools (Lee, Loeb, 1995). This cycle continues because the children who are attending Head Start live in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, so after they complete Head Start they go straight to the public schools in these areas that are dramatically of lesser quality than Head Start and all of the academic and cognitive improvements that they made are quickly erased.

Focusing on the goals of developmental improvement, a study was done by Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas in 1995, called “Does Head Start Make a Difference?” the researchers used a national sample of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY) and the National Longitudinal Survey’s Child-Mother file (NLSCM) to reexamine the impact of Head Start on a child’s “school performance, cognitive attainment, preventative medical care, and health and nutritional status” (Currie, Thomas, 1995, p. 341). The researchers decided to contrast children who have been enrolled in Head Start against their siblings who were not enrolled, in order to control for family background influence and cognitive and health outcomes. Regarding the utilization of heath care, the study found that both white and African American children were 8-11 percent more likely to be immunized if they attended either Head Start or another preschool than if they did not attend preschool. The researchers objected that the preventative services that Head Start offers is the same as the coverage available to many of the poor children under Medicaid and therefore, these services have little value (Currie, Thomas, 1995). These results do show that while the health services that Head Start provides are useful, but they are the same services that are provided to the children through Medicaid—the health insurance plan most of these children are under.

Additionally, the same researchers compared the impact of Head Start relative to children who did not go to preschool and the impact of participation in other preschools relative to children who did not go to preschool. With the way the study was controlled, it was found that Head Start had positive and persistent effects on the test scores and school attainment for white children, relative to those who were in other preschools or no preschool at all. But in contrast, while the test scores of black children also increased with participation in Head Start, these gains were quickly lost and there then appeared to be no positive benefits regarding school attainment from Head Start. This study also finds that white children who participated in Head Start are 47% less likely to have repeated a grade than other white children who did not participate in Head Start (Currie, Thomas, 1995).

The Early Head Start Study in 2002 found modest impacts for children of ages two and three for participating in the Early Head Start program. Participating children were seen as less aggressive and were more successful on measures of cognitive and language development (Love et al., 2002, cited by Barnett, 2007). For children of age five, modest effects were found on children’s behavior and attitudes towards learning, and on parenting and parental support for learning, in a study done in 2005 (Puma et al., 2005, cited by Barnett, 2007). The key to these findings is how the researchers describe them as “modest” because marginally, these effects are not significant. This is one of the only studies that focused on behavior and attitudes towards learning, which are extremely hard to measure. With these findings, one can see that while there were “modest” improvements, these findings do not show any significant impact on the children. With the examples of the past few studies, one can see that there is a very common theme that Head Start shows very little effectiveness with educational attainment and health services.

Another one of the main goals of Head Start was to improve family life for the child and the parents. A major focus of studies has been about parental involvement and if Head Start benefits families. In a national study of the long-term effects of Head Start in 1983, it was found that Head Start did promote self-sufficiency and about 7% of the parents indicated that Head Start helped them get further education (Collins, 1983, cited by Oyemade-Bailey, Waxler, Washington, 2006). In 1985, researchers Washington and Oyemade found six trends that were evident in family life for Head Start students. Such trends consisted of the feminization of poverty, rise of teenage parents, an increased amount of mothers in the workforce with children in preschool, the challenge for low-income families to be economically self-sufficient, substance abuse by parents of preschoolers, and an increased amount of family and community violence. With these trends that were found, a change in Head Start was needed to meet the demands of interventions for the parents. Increased rates of addiction placed the Head Start population at a greater risk for dropping out of school, unemployment, crime, incarceration, and continued poverty. Also, children who are exposed to substance abuse prenatally were then entering the Head Start program in alarming numbers. In response to this, Head Start started two techniques, such as teaching appropriate programs and working with parents (Washington & Oyemade, 1985 cited by Oyemade-Bailey, Waxler, Washington, 2006). Correspondingly, researchers wanted to look at how parents viewed involvement with their child’s education and how this affected their own views of themselves. In a study called, “Who Gets Involved? Head Start Mothers as Persons,” done in 1989, minority scholars investigated parents’ opinions of typical parental activities. The study also looked at the personality of the parents as an important level of participation. The two major findings of the study where: Head Start may contribute significantly to the level of parental involvement by increasing the amount of options available to them and there was a significant relationship that exists between involvement at high levels and ego development (Slaughter, Lindsey, Nakagawa, & Kuehne, 1989 cited by Oyemade-Bailey, Waxler, Washington, 2006). This suggests that parents had experienced personal development through participating in the Head Start activities. With Head Start learning what is needed for the parents, the program has been able to create programs that do successfully benefit a family unit.

While the Head Start program offered new and unique ideas about a child and their education in 1965, the program that still exists today is not yet modified enough to provide any significant benefits to a child. As the results have shown, all through the past 50 years, the effectiveness of Head Start findings has been fairly consistent in regards to the fade away effect. Starting in 1969, it was revealed that Head Start does not have all the lasting benefits that the public believed would end the cycle of poverty. With all of this in mind, one is left to wonder: if there is rarely positive effects found from Head Start, why is the program still intact today? I believe that with America’s ongoing fight to end poverty, Head Start contributes very marginally to helping this and the government wants to keep it around for its slight improvements. But this is not fair to the children. As a country, we need to create a program that equally supports all children. I think that the ideas that Head Start provided regarding the whole child and developmental improvements are innovative and very important and these techniques should be more emphasized regarding improving programs such as Head Start. Additionally, as some studies have shown, many of the fade away effects were because of the elementary schools that the children moved onto. This proves further the bad state of our countries schools. Unsurprisingly, these findings support the profound knowledge that our countries public schools are not in good shape. I believe that a possible solution to the fade away effect would be to improve elementary schools and further education so the effects of Head Start do not fade away. Head Start does have short-term positive effects but if the children the move onto schools of the same quality of Head Start, then these effects would not necessarily fade away.

Works Cited

Barnett, W. S. (2007). Revving up Head Start: Lessons from Recent Research. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 26(3), 647-677. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30163422


Lee, V. E., & Loeb, S. (1995). Where Do Head Start Attendees End Up? One Reason Why Preschool Effects Fade Out. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 17(1), 62-82. Retrieved 2015.


Lee, V. E., Brooks-Gunn, J., Schnur, E., & Liaw, F. (1990). Are Head Start Effects Sustained? A Longitudinal Follow-up Comparison of Disadvantaged Children Attending Head Start, No Preschool, and Other Preschool Programs. Child Development, 61, 495-507. Retrieved 2016.


Grimmett, S., & Garrett, A. M. (1989). A Review of Evaluations of Project Head Start. The Journal of Negro Education, 58(1), 30-38. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2295548


Currie, J., & Thomas, D. (1995). Does Head Start Make a Difference? The American Economic Review, 85(3), 341-364. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2118178


Oyemade-Bailey, U. J., Waxler, T., & Washington, V. (2006). Head Start: Translating Research into Policy and Practice. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 71(1), 145-161. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3701426


Williams, W., & Evans, J. W. (1969). The Politics of Evaluation: The Case of Head Start. The Annals of the American Academy of Political Social Science, 385, 118-132. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1037541


Garces, E., Thomas, D., & Currie, J. (2002). Longer-Term Effects of Head Start. The American Economic Review, 92(4), 999-1012. Retrieved from http://jstor.org/stable/3083291


Rose, E. (2010). The Promise of Preschool: From Head Start to Universal Pre-Kindergarten. Oxford University Press.











One thought on “Head Start: Is It Effective?”

  1. Olivia, this essay raises thoughtful questions about the original vision of Head Start and research about its effectiveness over time. The introductory paragraphs draw readers into the question and offer a coherent, nuanced thesis that explains how the program differed from traditional schooling, yet its developmental boost appears to fade away over time. Your review of social science research on this topic, and your explanation of “modest” results, persuaded me to accept your thesis as it currently appears. Perhaps a stronger thesis could have argued one additional point: that while Head Start’s influence of children’s cognitive gains may fade over time, the original vision included broader goals (such as strengthening parent-child relationships and involvement in the child’s schooling) that researchers have shown over time. I look forward to assigning this essay to future Educ 300 students.

    One small but important point: When inserting images into your essay, you must add a caption with a source note, to credit the original.

Comments are closed.