Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Does Head Start work? A new look at the data

By Claire Montialoux

As millions of parents across the United States are getting their children back to school, academics and policymakers are also taking a closer look where it all begins for the nation’s earliest learners — preschool. Does it really work and is it worth the cost?

The landscape of our preschools is varied, and is changing quickly as the demand for services is growing. On one hand, the federal government funds a preschool program for low-income families called Head Start. On the other, many alternative preschools (either public or private) are offering a similar program for young children, sometimes in direct competition with Head Start.

Since its creation in 1965, Head Start has steadily increased the number of children enrolled in its programs. It now serves almost 1 million 3- and 4-year-olds across the country for a total investment of $8 billion a year.

kids at day care Head Start was created to narrow the gap between disadvantaged and more privileged children as they entered kindergarten, by providing high-quality preschool to improve children’s school readiness. Is Head Start successful in reaching this goal? Numerous academics and policymakers have been attempting to answer this question for decades.

The question may be simple, but the answer is less so.

Early studies of Head Start and other preschool programs found large positive effects on both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, like vocabulary and self-control. But the first randomized experimental study of Head Start (the Head Start Impact Study, or HSIS), conducted in 2002, showed that the program produced smaller benefits that faded out by the time the students were in third grade. Some have interpreted this as evidence that Head Start is ineffective.

Several recent studies by UC Berkeley faculty and others, however, have shown that the HSIS data, when interpreted appropriately, indicates that Head Start has significant benefits. Some of these benefits last far beyond the Head Start years, like increases in health and lifetime earnings.

The reason for this misinterpretation is simple: unlike earlier studies, the HSIS compared Head Start participants to children in a broad range of childcare arrangements, many quite similar to Head Start. About one-third of the HSIS control group participated in alternative preschool programs, and the rest of the children in the control group were cared for at home.

In other words, one-third of the control group in the randomized experiment received preschool services that in many cases were similar to or even better than those provided by Head Start. This contrasts with earlier studies of Head Start, which primarily compared children in Head Start to children being cared for at home, as there were few other alternatives for low-income families before the mid-1990s.

When compared to at-home care rather than a similar preschool program, attending a Head Start center generates positive effects on children’s development. This implies that the positive impacts of investing in Head Start are larger than what previous analyses of HSIS data suggested.

Moreover, the small average effects of Head Start mask significant variation in its benefits across groups of children and across Head Start centers. In particular, children that struggle the most benefit a great deal from this program. With this new research lens, it is clear that Head Start is a good public policy and provides great benefits to the low-income children it was designed to serve.

To find out more about studies that have revisited the impact of Head Start, see my policy brief ( pdf ) for UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. In this brief I summarize the findings of five new research articles published since 2014.