Head Start study finds long-term impact
Despite doubts cast by previous studies of Head Start, a long-term study shows that a Head Start program of the 1970s, which was part of the National Planned Variation Head Start Project, helped participating young children achieve greater school success and avoid crime as they grew up. Earlier studies of the federal Head Start preschool program for low-income children and families, which began in 1965, found short-lived effects on children's test scores, prompting the government to make program improvements.
► Principal investigator Sherri Oden noted, "These findings confirm that Head Start programs can have important long-term effects on the lives of the children they serve."
Into Adulthood: A Study of the Effects of Head Start, by Sherri Oden, Lawrence Schweinhart, and David Weikart with Sue Marcus and Yu Xie (2000), presents encouraging findings from a 17-year follow-up study of 622 young adults 22 years old in Colorado and Florida, who were born in poverty and did or did not attend Head Start as young children. The researchers located and interviewed 77 percent of the original sample of children.
The study found evidence of important effects on school success and crime. For females (but not males) at one study site after adjusting for background differences, only about one-fourth as many Head Start participants as nonparticipants (5% versus 19%) failed to obtain a high school or GED diploma, and only one-third as many (5% versus 15%) were arrested for crimes.
HighScope's approach has a positive effect in Head Start programs
The study also examined the effects of a Head Start program that used a proven curriculum, the HighScope educational approach. Using this approach, teachers set up the classroom and the daily routine to encourage children to initiate their own learning activities. Children who attended Head Start classes that used this approach rather than the standard Head Start Curriculum of the time had a significantly higher grade point average throughout their schooling and experienced fewer than half as many criminal convictions by age 22. A recent national survey found that 37 percent of today's Head Start programs use the HighScope approach.
Principal investigator Sherri Oden said, "These findings confirm that Head Start programs can have important long-term effects on the lives of the children they serve." Said study coauthor Lawrence Schweinhart, "The findings of this large-scale Head Start study point to effects on school success and crime similar to those found in the more intensive HighScope Perry Preschool Study." Study coauthor and HighScope president David Weikart added, "This study strengthens the evidence that early childhood programs need a high-quality, educational approach to have positive effects on children's lives."
Selected outside experts contributed to the study's analysis and interpretation of findings. Analyses by Sue Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania and Yu Xie of the University of Michigan adjusted for the backgrounds of the Head Start participants, who started out slightly worse off than those who did not participate in Head Start. The book also includes commentaries by leading scholars. Harvard University professor Sheldon White, who chaired the study's advisory panel, commented that "this report offers recommendations for future Head Start research that seem like excellent rubrics of a program of such studies." Yale University's Edward Zigler and Sally Styfco noted "A prize from [this] study is the encouragement it provides. The investigators show us that the obstacles to longitudinal research can be overcome and enough good data collected to allow reasonable conclusions. The findings confirm that we are on the right track in deploying comprehensive interventions and advocating for high-quality services."
Overall, Into Adulthood provides a pattern of findings, a system of data collection methods, and an array of statistical analysis models that provide useful guidance and direction to future Head Start research.