Head Start critics have long pointed to studies showing any academic benefits of participating in the federally funded preschool program for low-income children fade once those students are in elementary school, but a new study by researchers at Texas A&M University and Notre Dame shows Head Start not only has positive effects on those enrolled in the program during its early years, but that those benefits also extend to their children.
The benefits include less teen parenting and criminal activity as well as greater higher educational attainment, and the authors write that, “Indeed, the availability of Head Start, at least during the early years of the program, appears to have been quite successful at breaking the cycle of poor outcomes for disadvantaged families.”
A Chalkbeat article on the study also points to a recent working paper suggesting that the benefits of Head Start for preschoolers are greater when those children enter “better-funded public K-12 schools.”
Head Start advocates have long maintained that providing early education is only one aspect of the program and that comprehensive services, such as health and dental care and family support, are equally important. They have also argued the fade-out effects could be due more to the fact that many Head Start graduates enter struggling schools without the resources they need to provide equitable learning opportunities.
In 2012, the final report from the Head Start Impact Study again concluded that the results at 3rd grade “did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.” In a response following the release of the report, Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, wrote that former Head Start students continue to face multiple challenges and obstacles to learning. “These include lack of access to high-quality primary and secondary education; high rates of poverty and violence in their communities, and limited role models for success,” she said. “Head Start children, like all children, benefit by attending high-performing schools and living in nurturing environments.”
Over the past several years, Congress and the Office of Head Start, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have taken multiple steps to increase Head Start quality, including requiring higher levels of education for teachers and requiring Head Start programs to re-compete for their grant funds.