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Head Start Children Show Vocabulary Boosts When Compared to Home Care

Children who attended Head Start showed strong positive short-term effects on a measure of vocabulary compared to children who stayed at home, according to a recent analysis of data that was gathered as part of a major Head Start impact study, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

In addition, the analysis shows little difference in results between children who attended Head Start and those who attended another form of center-based care, an indication that Head Start was no better—but also no worse—than other child-care options available to parents who were a part of the impact study. 

The analysis, published Dec. 30 in the online journal Social Science Research Network, represents a deeper examination of data collected by the impact study, which followed about 4,400 3- and 4-year-olds whose families tried to enroll them in oversubscribed Head Start programs during the 2002-03 school year. Through a lottery system, some children were allowed to enroll, while others were turned away. 

The impact study found, overall, that preacademic benefits of Head Start were apparent early, but largely faded by the end of 1st grade. (A follow-up report that evaluated the children at 3rd grade found similar results.)

So how did this new analysis come to a different conclusion?

Part of the answer lies in the group of children who were compared to the Head Start kids. The children who were turned away from the Head Start programs often ended up in center-based child care; some of them actually enrolled in Head Start, even though they had lost the initial lottery. About 44 percent of the control-group children were in a center or Head Start; 56 percent were cared for by a parent, relative, or a home-based child-care program.

The new analysis more directly compares children in Head Start to that proportion of the control group who stayed at home, using a vocabulary test that is predictive of later achievement. While the positive benefits diminished over time, modest effects still appeared to be present in 1st grade, according to this analysis.

Ultimately, the paper said, the findings "present a much more nuanced view of Head Start's impact than the topline experimental results indicate."

In an interview, study co-author Todd Grindal, a researcher with the independent research firm Abt Associates, said the results could also have policy implications. 

"For those who would say that the Head Start Impact Study demonstrates that Head Start doesn't work, we would respond that's not the case, depending on the measurement," he said. "We see it works particularly well for those kids who would have been in home-based care." Those are the children policymakers could consider targeting more carefully, he said. 

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