Head Start Study Suggests Minimal Benefits

The results of a new large-scale study of the federal Head Start program suggest that in some areas, the childhood development program produces only minimal, short-term benefits. The findings are from the study's first phase. Program supporters say it's too early to draw conclusions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, co-host:

The Head Start program is up for renewal in Congress this year. Forty years after it began, Head Start remains extremely popular, even though there have long been questions about whether it really does help poor children do better in school. Now the first phase of a large-scale study seems to confirm what critics have suspected for years, that the program's benefits are minimal and don't last. Head Start supporters say it's too early to draw conclusions. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

As lead researcher on the new study, Nicholas Zill knew that both critics and supporters of Head Start are equally passionate, and that, whatever the research found, somebody was going to think it was biased.

Mr. NICHOLAS ZILL (Vice President, Westat): Our belief is that the truth and being true to the scientific method as best we can is the best defense against any of those kind of criticisms.

JONES: Zill is vice president of Westat, the social science research firm that coordinated the study. Congress commissioned it in 1999 because officials wanted scientific evidence of Head Start's effects beyond the glowing anecdotal success stories or decades-old studies involving only small numbers of children. First-year data yielded some promising results. More Head Start parents read to their children and got involved in their education. Head Start kids got more dental care than kids who weren't in the program. And Zill says it did nurture prereading and other cognitive skills.

Mr. ZILL: But I have to say that these effects were modest in size--were quite modest in size--and the--Head Start did not bring these children up to national norms. It brought them closer to national norms, but not up to national norms.

JONES: Zill says that's the crux of the matter. Few people doubt, and now the evidence seems to support, that the program does a great job of exposing children to a supportive educational environment.

Mr. ZILL: The areas that's more difficult to do is in the area of children's vocabulary development, math skills. There, where it's more challenging to teach those things and make a difference, Head Start is either having a minimal effect or no effect.

JONES: That sounds like the same old song to the National Head Start Association, and the group's director of governmental affairs, Joel Ryan, thinks is knows who's singing it.

Mr. JOEL RYAN (National Head Start Association): It seems clear to me that whenever there is any good news in terms of Head Start, the Bush administration will always find some negative news.

JONES: Ryan says you can't draw conclusions about Head Start's effects by analyzing just one year of study data. While he agrees the research is important, Ryan worries it's being spun to make the glass look half empty.

Mr. RYAN: The study showed, for instance, that at the end of just one year of Head Start, Head Start was able to nearly cut in half the achievement gap in children's prereading skills that would be expected in the absence of these children receiving Head Start services. That's a success.

JONES: Bush administration officials say the new research should actually benefit the program by giving federal officials something more solid to base funding decisions on. Wade Horn is assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mr. WADE HORN (Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families): It's just simply not true that the Bush administration is interested in dismantling the Head Start program. Evaluations done well ought to be a feedback mechanism to the program in order to improve the effectiveness of that program.

JONES: Horn says both supporters and critics should keep the main goal of the study in mind, insuring that low-income children have the best opportunity available to enter school ready to learn.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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