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Study: Home Visiting, Full-Day Services Improve Head Start Outcomes

Full-day preschool services and home-visiting programs are two of the most important contributors to effective Head Start centers, according to a new study by economics professor Christopher Walters of U.C. Berkeley and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Using the data collected during the Head Start Impact Study, which tracked outcomes for 4,000 children who either did or did not enroll in Head Start, Walters did a re-evaluation to discover which program elements contributed the most to highly effective centers.

Offering full-day preschool services and programs that involved head Start staff visiting the homes of new mothers to offer support had a noticeable impact, but other commonly lauded practices did not. Teachers with bachelor's degrees and smaller class sizes made no measurable difference to student outcomes, according to the study.

Practices vary widely across Head Start centers, which don't follow a uniform curriculum, hiring practices or daily schedule. The variation makes evaluating the overall impact of the federal funding provided for the federal early-childhood education problematic, as was highlighted last year by the debate surrounding the Head Start Impact Study.

Head Start centers that draw children from home-care rather than from other, private, centers also showed a larger effect. And children with less-educated mothers showed the most growth compared to their peers who were not enrolled in Head Start.

"It is important to emphasize that education practices and applicant populations are not randomly assigned to Head Start centers," Walters wrote. The lack of randomization means the estimates in the study may not reflect direct causal relationships between the practices identified and the outcomes for children.

"Nonetheless, this analysis shows that some inputs predict Head Start effectiveness, while others do not," Walters wrote. 

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