Head Start works – and keeps working

Head Start has been around since the 1960s, and debating its effectiveness has become a sort of litmus test on how people feel about the role of government. Democrats tend to support the preschool program. Republicans are bound by conservative orthodoxy to claim it doesn’t work.

But new research finds that, not only does Head Start work, it produces benefits that compound for generations. The analysis, by Lauren Bauer and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of the Hamilton Project, was published this month. Findings include:

  • Head Start increases the likelihood that children will go on to graduate from high school, attend college and earn postsecondary degrees or certificates.
  • The program improves social, emotional and behavioral development, resulting in better self-control and improved self-esteem when the children grow up.
  • Head Start kids are more likely as adults to engage in positive parenting practices like reading to their children, teaching them letters and numbers, and showing them affection.

Some of the gains were especially pronounced for African-American and Latino children who attended Head Start, the Hamilton Project researchers found.

The analysis draws on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a massive, long-term survey of families that compiles information on social and behavioral questions. To screen out family differences, it compares results for children who participated in the program with siblings who didn’t.

Criticism of Head Start has focused on studies that show academic gains from the program are likely to “wash out” as children proceed through the elementary grades. But that’s true of the gains produced by all sorts of interventions, not just Head Start. The important finding is that benefits remain for adults who attended Head Start years ago. Non-cognitive skills like persistence, patience and the ability to get along with others stick with them.

“This comes up over and over in the research literature,” Schanzenbach tells Emily Badger of the Washington Post. “Measurable impacts fade, then they come back when they’re adults. It’s happened enough that it should give us pause.”

No doubt some Head Start preschools are better than others. In a program that serves nearly a million children there are bound to be problems here and there. And funding is always an issue. Head Start parents and teachers are constantly lobbying skeptical legislators for adequate budgets.

But the broader message is that spending money on high-quality pre-kindergarten programs is a good investment. On that score, there’s lots of evidence from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and others – including Schanzenbach’s earlier study of universal pre-K in Oklahoma and Georgia.

In Indiana, all this suggests it is past time to expand the miniscule, five-county pilot pre-K program that the state began funding two years ago. Civic and business leaders in Indianapolis are pushing for an expansion, and others should too.

Head Start helps a lot of children and families. Its success shows there’s a lot more to accomplish.

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