Earlier this year, the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs
received a significant increase in funding as part of The American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the economic stimulus bill, which was
passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The act provides increased funding of $1 billion for Head Start and $1.1
billion for Early Head Start. The stimulus money is a separate addition to the
funds allocated for the programs’ annual budgets, which total more than $7
Head Start, begun in 1965, is a comprehensive child development program
that promotes school readiness by providing educational, health, nutritional,
social and other support to low-income 3- and 4-year-old children and their
families. In 1995, Early Head Start was established to extend support to
children ages birth to 3 years old when research provided clear evidence that a
child’s earliest years are critical periods of growth and development.
Head Start is the longest-running program to address systemic poverty in
the United States. It is also one of the most heavily researched programs in
the nation. Still, debate continues about the program’s effectiveness.
Recent research, however, makes a case for investing in Head Start as a
means of helping low-income children achieve better outcomes. Studies suggest
that while gains may be small or moderate in some cases, participating in Head
Start and Early Head Start gives children important advantages in cognitive
development, health, and other domains. In addition, a recent study suggests
that even impacts considered small can generate lifetime benefits that exceed
the current $9,000-per-student estimated cost of Head Start.
Effectiveness Of Head Start
A growing body of evidence suggests that Head Start is able to produce a range of
short-term and long-term benefits for children who participate. Estimates that
take into consideration the value of those benefits and the cost of the program
suggest that Head Start is a cost-effective investment—at least as it was
operated during its early years through the 1980s, a period for which
researchers are more reliably able to track long-term outcomes of Head Start
The more difficult questions center on the impacts of Head Start as it is
operated today. What long-term outcomes can be expected among the 1 million
children in the program? And what is the cost effectiveness of Head Start as it
is currently operated?
The impacts of Head Start on children may change over time for several
reasons. Head Start itself, for example, has evolved over the years. The kinds
of developmental environments that children not in Head Start experience at
home and in early childhood programs may also change as, for example, more
mothers work outside the home and the range of state, local and federal programs
for young children expands.1
Significant progress has been made in recent years in identifying the
causal impacts of Head Start, which has led to a growing body of research that
suggests the program likely became cost effective during its first few decades.2
Evidence of long-term impacts on children were drawn from outcomes of those
who were enrolled in Head Start in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. One recent
study, for example, found that white children who participated in Head Start in
1980 or earlier were about 22% more likely to complete high school than their
brothers and sisters who were in some other type of preschool arrangement. They
were also about 19% more likely to attend some college. The study reported that
the school attainment gains for African-American children were small. However, attending
Head Start was associated with significantly reducing their chances of being
arrested and charged with a crime later in life.3
Researchers also report evidence that gains in school attainment for Head
Start children are linked to program funding levels. In another recent study,
researchers reported that a 50%-100% increase in Head Start funding is associated
with a one-half year gain in school attainment and increases by 15% the
likelihood that children will attend at least some college when they get older.
Such gains were seen among African-American children as well as whites. The
estimates were calculated for children who participated in Head Start during
the 1960s and 1970s.4
Such impacts have lead researchers to estimate that Head Start, as operated
in the 1960s through the 1980s, produced $7 in benefits for every $1 spent on
the program. That estimated benefit-cost ratio is similar to those found among
much smaller, more intense, and more costly model early childhood programs,
such as the Perry Preschool Program.
The long-term impacts of Head Start on the children enrolled in the program
today will not be known for many years. The absence of such data makes
estimating the cost effectiveness of the program as it is operated today a
Researchers Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago and Deborah Phillips
of Georgetown University undertook the difficult task of projecting the
long-term impacts of Head Start on children who are now enrolled across the
country and estimating the cost effectiveness of the program as it is operated
Their investigation was aided by rigorous evidence of short-term impacts
from the recent Head Start Impact Study commissioned by the federal government.
The study is a randomized experimental evaluation of Head Start impacts
measured within one year of random assignment. In addition to random
assignment, the study includes a representative sample of program sites. In
other words, rather than being a small, tightly controlled demonstration, it is
an examination of a public program implemented in a wide range of circumstances
with varying quality.5
One key question is how large would Head Start’s short-term impacts need to
be to suggest that the program’s long-term benefits justify program
The researchers examined that question by looking at the short-term impacts
reported in studies of other early childhood interventions for which there is
also evidence of long-term benefits in excess of cost, and by estimating the
dollar value of a standard deviation increase in early childhood test scores.
Available evidence on a range of early childhood interventions—from relatively
low-cost large-scale programs such as the Chicago Child-Parent Centers to small,
very intensive randomized model experimental programs like Perry Preschool and
Abecedarian—point to lasting program benefits that outweigh program costs.6
Researchers estimated that positive impacts on achievement test scores of
.1 to .2 standard deviation are large enough to produce long-term dollar-value
benefits that exceed the costs of the program.
The Head Start Impact Study reports that 3-year-old and 4-year-old children
in the program as it currently operates had scores within the .1 to .2 standard
deviation range for pre-reading skills such as letter naming and word identification,
and for pre-writing and vocabulary.7 Other findings include
evidence that Head Start had positive impacts on the overall health of children
in both the 3- and 4-year-old groups and in their access to dental care.
Ludwig and Phillips suggest that even given the limitations of available
data and methods for estimating long-term impact, Head Start data as operated
today likely produces benefits for children whose dollar value exceeds the cost
of the program.
Early Head Start was established in 1995 when researchers began reporting
that the infant and toddler years were critical periods in the maturation of
the brain during which experience and proper stimulation can play key roles in
enhancing development. The program provides early care and education and
comprehensive services to low-income children ages birth to 3 years, and support
to pregnant mothers and families. In 2006, nearly 86,000 children under age 3
and about 11,000 pregnant women were enrolled in Early Head Start.
Data from Early Head Start Program Information Reports provide a profile of
the children and families enrolled in the program and the services and supports
they are provided. In addition, recent research provides insight into the impact
of Early Head Start on the children and families enrolled.
The most recent data on the children and families enrolled in Early Head
Start come from the program’s 2005-2006 Program Information Reports, which
sites across the country are required to submit each year. When analyzed,
several key findings emerge, including these:
- Early Head Start supports working parents. About 66% of families served
included at least one working parent in 2006. At least one parent was in school
or in training in 24% of families.
- The program served a diverse range of low-income children, families, and
pregnant women. The racial and ethnic profile included 42% white, 30% Hispanic
and 25% African American.
- Children and families had access to a wide range of services. The most
widely accessed services were parent education, 65%, and health education, 60%.
Children also received dental, medical, and mental health services and 92% of
the pregnant women enrolled received prenatal and postnatal care.
- Among the children who did not have health insurance when they enrolled in
Early Head Start, 54% obtained insurance during their first year in the
program. And 93% of children in the program received all immunizations appropriate
for their age.
Early Head Start Impact
Among the best evidence of the
impact Early Head Start has on the children, families, and pregnant women who
participate in the program are the findings reported in a rigorous,
large-scale, random assignment evaluation of 17 program sites that was
commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The evaluation reports that,
overall, low-income children and families enrolled in Early Head Start enjoyed
modest, but positive outcomes. The study also showed that some of the outcomes
the program improved are important predictors of later school achievement and
family functioning. Among the key findings of the Early Head Start
evaluation were the following:
- Early Head Start largely
sustained statistically significant, ?positive impacts on cognitive
development among 3-year-old children. On average, they scored higher than
children in a control group who did not participate in the program on the
Bayley Scales of Infant Development Mental Development Index, an assessment of
cognitive development. However, the scores of Early Head Start children still
fell below national norms.
- Fewer Early Head Start
children scored in the at-risk range of developmental functioning than did
children in the control group.
- Early Head Start children
scored higher on assessments of language development than peers in the control
group. Also, fewer Early Head Start children scored in the at- risk range of
- Early Head Start was found to
have favorable impacts on several aspects of social-emotional development at
age 3. Compared to children in the control group, for example, Early Head Start
children tended to engage their parents more, were more attentive during play,
and were rated lower in aggressive behavior by their parents.
The evaluation also reports
that Early Head Start had positive impacts on a range of parenting outcomes.
- Early Head Start parents were
more emotionally supportive with their children than parents in the control
group who did not participate in the program. Early Head Start parents, for
example, scored higher on the Home Observation Measurement of the Environment.
- Early Head Start parents were
also more likely to report reading to their children every day and they were
less likely than control group parents to engage in negative parenting
behaviors. They also reported using a greater range of discipline skills,
including more mild strategies and fewer punitive strategies.
- More Early Head Start parents
participated in education or job training programs compared to control group
parents. However, such outcomes did not lead to significant improvements in
family income during the study period.
- Early Head Start had significant
favorable impacts on several areas of fathering and father-child relationships.
For example, fathers were more likely to participate in child development
activities, and Early Head Start children were more able to engage their
fathers and be more attentive during play.
The program’s impacts on children and parents were greater among certain
subgroups, including African American families and families who enrolled during
pregnancy. In addition, the evaluation found that Early Head Start families
were more likely than those in the control group to receive a broad range of
services and much more likely to receive intensive services focused on child
development and parenting.
As with most other Head Start studies, it is unclear how such impacts
influence long-term outcomes. However, research suggests that reductions in
risk factors and improvement in protective factors may support improved
outcomes later in the lives of children.
Ludwig, J., & Phillips, D. (2007). "The benefits and costs of Head
Start." Social Policy Report, 21. Society for Research in
Child Development. http://www.srcd.org/spr.html
Love, J.M., Kisker, E., Ross, C.M., Schochet, P.Z., Brooks-Gunn, J.B.,
Paulsell, D., Boller, K., Constantine, J., Vogel, C., Fuligni, A.S., &
Brady-Smith, C. (2002, June). Making a
Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and Their Families: The Impacts
of Early Head Start, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Administration for Children and Families.
Hoffman, E., & Ewen, D. (2007, December). Supporting families,
nurturing young children: Early Head Start Programs in 2006. CLASP Policy Brief (Head Start Series), 9. Washington, DC: Center for
Law and Social Policy.
This Special Report is
based on the publications cited above. It is not intended to be an original
work but a summary for the convenience of our readers. References noted in the
1 Hill, J.,
Brooks-Gunn, J., & Waldfogel, J. (2003). Sustained effects of high
participation in an early intervention for low-birth-weight premature infants. Developmental
Psychology, 39, 730-744.
2 Currie, J. &
Thomas, D. (1995). Does Head Start make a difference? American Economic
Review, 85(3), 341-364.
3 Garces, E., Thomas, D.,
& Currie, J. (2002). Longer-term effects of Head Start. American
Economic Review, 92(4), 999-1012.
4 Ludwig, J., &
Miller, D.L. (2007). Does Head Start improve children’s life chances? Evidence
from a regression-discontinuity design. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(1),
5 Zaslow, M. (2006,
June). Issues for the learning community from the first year result of the
Head Start Impact Study. Paper presented at the Head Start Eighth National
Research Conference, Washington, D. C. http://www.childtrends.org/Files//Child_Trends2006_06_27_SP_HeadStartPlenary.pdf.
6 Carneiro, P., &
Heckman, J.J. (2003). Human capital policy. In J.J. Heckman & A.B. Krueger
(Eds.), Inequality in America: What role for human capital policies? (77-240).
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
7 U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families (May 2005).
Head Start Impact Study: First Year Findings. Washington, DC.