New research dogs effectiveness of Head Start

New research dogs effectiveness of Head Start

(District of Columbia) Echoing research that dates back almost 50 years, the latest evaluation of the effectiveness of the federal Head Start program found positive effects on general reading achievement but nothing more.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science released this week an evaluation of a recent study on the effects of the Head Start program and, in typically terse language, reported “potentially positive effects” on reading but “no discernible effects on mathematics achievement and social-emotional development for 3- and 4-year old children.”

Established in the mid-1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” the Head Start program was intended to prepare toddlers of low-income families for school by providing a mix of services, from education and health care to nutrition and family engagement.

But at a current cost of close to $8 billion annually, the program has been the target of longtime critics who’ve questioned the benefits of the services.

The latest report from the Institute of Education Sciences notes that federal rules allow administrators of individual Head Start programs much flexibility in designing and delivering services to their communities. As a result, researchers said, there is considerable variation in what services are offered and how.

The Obama administration has remained steadfast in its support of the program, which has served more than 30 million children from birth to age five since inception. Head Start, administrated by the Health and Human Services Department, would have received an additional $1.5 billion in this year’s budget but under the GOP-led spending plan, the program lost funding that Democrats claim prevented about 35,000 low-income students from enrolling.

The study results would seem to give skeptics new ammunition.

Researchers had two groups – some 1,278 three-year-olds applying to the program for the first time and another 1,008 four-year-olds.

To gauge reading performance, they relied on scoring from the Parent Emergent Literacy Scale, which measures children’s literacy skills using parent ratings in five areas – letter recognition, counting, name writing and primary color identification.

“The authors reported, and the (Institute of Education) confirmed, a statistically significant and positive effect of Head Start on children’s PELS ratings for both the 3-year-old and 4-year-old cohorts at the end of the intervention year,” the report states.

For math, they used “The Counting Bears Test,” which measures counting ability and understanding of one-to-one correspondence. Impacts for this outcome were only presented for the 4-year-old cohort. “The authors reported, and (the Institute) confirmed, no statistically significant or substantively important difference between the Head Start and comparison groups on this measure,” analysts said.

To measure social-emotional development, they used the Total Problem Behavior Scale, the Social Competencies Checklist, and the Social Skills and Positive Approaches to Learning Scale. Once again, researchers noted “no statistically significant or substantively important effects on any of these measures for either the 3-year-old or the 4-year-old cohorts.”

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