Does the recent evaluation show that Head Start doesn’t work?

Another Head Start evaluation, another controversy about whether the results show it works or not.  In her comment on our post on the NY School Milk Study Susan Wolf drew our attention to some important differences between the recent evaluation report on Head Start, and how it was represented in an email from the Brookings Institute.

The January 21 2010 post on the Brookings Institute UpFront blog summarized the findings succinctly:

The study demonstrated that children’s attendance in Head Start has no demonstrable impact on their academic, socio-emotional, or health status at the end of first grade. That’s right. If you were a mother who lost the lottery, couldn’t get your child into Head Start, and had to care for her at home, she was no worse off at the end of first grade than she would have been had she gotten into Head Start.

The executive summary of the evaluation report , while acknowledging that many of the  results that were achieved during children’s participation in the program were not evident by the end of Grade 1, identified the following results:

Cognitive Outcomes: Head Start group children did significantly better on the PPVT (a vocabulary measure) for 4-year-olds and on the Woodcock-Johnson III test of Oral Comprehension for the 3-year-olds.

Social-Emotional Outcomes. By the end of 1st grade, there was some evidence that the 3-year-old cohort had closer and more positive relationships with their parents.

Health Outcomes. For the 4-year-old cohort, there was an impact on child health insurance coverage at the end of kindergarten and 1st grade, and an impact on child health status in kindergarten.

Parenting Outcomes. For the 3-year-old cohort, there were positive favorable impacts on use of time-out and authoritarian parenting at the end of 1st grade and on spanking and time out in kindergarten.

The Brookings summary has been widely picked up, including:

The Foundry, the blog of the Heritage Foundation which stated:

Unfortunately, a new (long overdue) report published by the Department of Health and Human found that the $150 billion that taxpayers have “invested” in Head Start since 1965 is yielding zero lasting benefits for participating children. According to the Head Start Impact Study: “the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole.” The Heritage Foundation reviews the findings of the new evaluation in a forthcoming Backgrounder report concluding: “Head Start has little to no effect on cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of children participating in the program.”

Why do these reports  summarize the findings inaccurately? Is it deliberate misrespresentation or error?  Is it just too hard to include variations in the results in a brief summary, or are the reporters not sufficiently skilled? Or do the reporters judge that the results are not broad enough across the domains, or  not large enough?  If the other gains are not sustained into Grade 1, does this reflect inadequacies of Head Start or of Grade 1?  Does Head Start need to be a ‘silver bullet’ to be successful?

Given the long history of controversial Head Start evaluations, I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about this evaluation.  Including paying attention to differential results as well, since the evaluation clearly identified groups for whom Head Start worked particularly well, and those for whom it appeared to be harmful.

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