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Head Start’s Value Lies in Care, Not Academic Training

Here’s my theory about why some early childhood programs help and others hurt.

Wikimedia Commons
Lady Bird Johnson visiting a Head Start center in 1966
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Head Start was founded in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and it has been going strong ever since. This past year the program enrolled about 1 million children nationwide, at a cost of about $10 billion. Does Head Start do what it is supposed to do—give children from poor families a boost that ultimately helps them rise out of poverty? The results of research to address that question are mixed, and in this article I address the question of why that is so. But first, as prelude, I describe briefly the results of research on two other pre-kindergarten programs aimed at ameliorating the effects of poverty—one that failed and one that succeeded.

The Tennessee Pre-K Failure

A few years ago, Tennessee instituted a state-wide pre-k program for low-income children, and researchers at Vanderbilt University conducted a well-designed research study to determine its effects. Since there were more applicants for the program than there were places, a random process was used to determine who would be admitted and who would not. The researchers subsequently used data from pre-k through 3rd grade, from state educational records, to compare those who were in the program with otherwise similar children who were not.

Here is a summary of the results (from Lipsey et al., 2018). At the end of the pre-k year, those in pre-k performed better than the control group on a set of achievement tests, but during kindergarten and thereafter the children in the control group caught up and surpassed them. On the third-grade state achievement tests, those in the control group performed significantly better than those in the pre-k group in math and science and equally well in reading. Moreover, those in the pre-k group were more likely to be diagnosed as having learning disorders than those in the control group and also had a higher rate of school rule violations.

So, this expensive, intensive program designed to help poor children get a head start in school backfired. The children who, by random selection, were not in the pre-k program performed better academically and behaviorally and were less likely to need special services in elementary school, than those who were in the program. Why did the program fail?

My theory is that it failed because it focused too much on academic training and not enough on the real needs of little children. By now there is lots of evidence that early academic training backfires (see here and here). It produces short-term gains, but those gains are illusory; they have to do with memorized procedures that help out on immediate tests but ultimately interfere with the kind of intellectual development needed to achieve later on in school. Unfortunately, education policy makers continue to ignore that evidence (here and here).

The researchers’ published article on this study did not provide a description of the program, but I found this description of it elsewhere: “The program provides a minimum of 5.5 hours of instructional time per day, five days per week. Classes have a maximum of 20 students and are taught by state-licensed teachers using one of 22 curricula approved by the Tennessee Department of Education.”

Wow, my heart goes out to those kids! A minimum of 5.5 hours of instruction per day, five days a week, from state-licensed teachers, using a state-determined curriculum, for four-year-olds! It sounds like torture to me. It sounds like a perfect program for making kids hate school even before they start, a perfect program for producing learning disorders in initially normal children. Children are designed to learn, with joy, through self-directed exploration and play. That’s how they acquire the basic understandings and intellectual skills that help them with schoolwork and, more importantly, all of life as they grow older. It looks like this program deprived these kids of what they needed and gave them what they didn’t need. They were better off at home.

The Opportunity Project Success

Now here’s another well-studied early childhood program, with rosier results. The Opportunity Project, offered to preschool-aged children from economically needy families in a midwestern city, is modeled on guidelines developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), carried out according to the following directives (quoted from Bakken et al., 2017): “First, learning about diversity is integrated and developmentally appropriate and part of all aspects of the daily schedule. Second, the climate and tone of the classroom reflects a sense of community, where all members are respected for their individuality. Third, classrooms have resources and materials in all areas to make the environment culturally rich (e.g., books about sharing, caring, respect, and differences/similarities among people). Fourth, in the area of self-concept/autonomy, children learn a sense of self, a sense of belonging, and positive attitudes toward learning itself. Fifth, children are encouraged to become active learners, drawing on direct physical and social experiences to construct their understanding of the world around them. And last, learning new skills is based on the interaction of the children’s biological maturation and the environment—opportunity is encouraged in learning new skills.

So, this apparently is a program oriented toward the whole child that provides a happy, respectful place for children to interact with one another and adults. To me, it is no surprise that research on this program showed positive results. Assessments in 4th grade revealed that the children from this program scored higher on math and reading tests, had fewer discipline referrals, were significantly more emotionally mature, and were better at social interactions than those who had not been in the program.

Findings such as these fit well with much other research showing that children in traditional play-based preschools and kindergartens perform better—socially, emotionally, and academically—by 3rd or 4th grade than children in academically focused preschools and kindergartens (see here and here).

The Head Start Program

Now, back to Head Start. As I noted earlier, Head Start was founded in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. This was long before we became obsessed with test scores and academic training for little children—long before No Child Left Behind or Common Core or any of those initiatives that have proven so harmful. Today Head Start is thought of primarily as an early education program, but it was designed to be much more than that. As initially conceived the program had six components, of which education was just one. The other five were (according to Ludwig & Miller, 2007):

Parent involvement. In the first year of the program 47,000 parents from poor families were employed in Head Start centers, and another 500,000 were part-time volunteers (Zigler & Valentine, 1979).

Nutrition. The program provides a nutritious breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Early research showed that Head Start greatly reduced incidences of malnutrition (Fosburg et al., 1984).

Social services. Head Start social workers help families solve some of the crises that come with poverty and connect families with social services to which they are entitled.

Mental health services. Head Start workers help to identify mental health problems among the children and find help to treat them.

Health services. The program provides children with basic health services, including immunizations and screening for such conditions as anemia and diabetes, and connects families with community health centers.

The actual implementation of these aspects of Head Start vary considerably—often in undocumented ways—from place to place and over time.

Mixed Findings Concerning the Success of Head Start

Many research studies have been conducted on the question of whether Head Start truly helps children rise out of poverty. The results have been mixed, but several reviews of the studies have revealed some patterns to the results.

Studies that looked at academic gains in elementary school have produced little evidence of such gains (Piper. 2018, 2019). In contrast, studies that have looked long-term, at the life course of the people who were children in Head Start at or shortly after its inception, have shown quite remarkable gains (Deming, 2009; Bailey et al., 2018). Compared to control groups, those who were in Head Start were found to be significantly less likely to die in childhood (Ludwig & Miller, 2007), less likely to suffer from health problems (Fosberg et al, 1984), more likely to finish high school and go on to college (Bailey et al., 2018), and to be better off socially, emotionally, and economically in adulthood (Deming, 2009; Schanzenbach & Bauer, 2016). These studies are powerful evidence that, at least for the early recruits into the program, Head Start was remarkably successful in achieving what it set out to achieve, that is, help people rise out of poverty.

A subsequent study (Pages et al, 2019), however, that looked at the life outcomes of those who were children in Head Start in the 1990s--years after it was initiated--failed to replicate to these positive findings. This study, which was conducted by methods identical to those of the study of earlier recruits, revealed no positive gains in childhood or early adulthood for those who were in Head Start compared to those who were not, and on some measures those who had been in Head Start were doing worse than those who were cared for at home. Those who had been in Head Start were significantly less likely to be employed or in school as young adults.

Why Has the Benefit of Head Start Declined over Time?

Why these different findings? There are many possibilities, but the one that comes to my mind, based on other research, is that the nature of the Head Start program may have changed over the years. I don’t know of direct evidence for this, but my hypothesis is that in more recent times Head Start has been affected by the national obsession with academic training, so that more such training is going on in the program at the expense of some of the other benefits that the program has traditionally offered.

One reviewer of research on Head Start (Piper, 2018; 2019) has suggested that the greatest benefit of the program lies in quality day care, not education. By providing a safe, healthy place for children to spend their day it allows economically deprived mothers to find paid employment, thereby improving the quality of the home and economic wellbeing of the family. Consistent with this view are the results of a research study that took advantage of the fact that Head Start centers vary in the services they offer (Walters, 2015). The study revealed more benefits from full-day programs (which would provide mothers the opportunity to work) than from half-day programs and more benefits from programs that included home visits (which would provide the possibility for social services) than from those that did not. In contrast, the education level of the teachers (whether or not they had higher degrees), the kind of educational curriculum used, and the class size had no effect.

We used to talk about programs for young children as daycare. That term has largely gone out of style, and we are now much more likely to talk about them as preschool. My hypothesis is that Head Start and other programs for young children would work better if we removed the schoolishness from them and reverted to a greater focus on care. Care means attending to the real needs of children and families. For children that means providing them with healthy meals, medical attention, a safe place to spend the day, and lots of opportunity to play and explore with other kids. For families in poverty it means benefits that allow for an improved standard of living at home, which might come in part from paid employment for a parent. If these are provided, academic improvement will follow; it doesn’t have to be forced.


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Addendum: A reader pointed out to me that the better term is childcare, not daycare. It is the child that is cared for, not the day.


Bailey, M., Sun, S., & Timpe, B. (2018). Prep school for kids: The long-run impacts of Head Start on human capital and economic self-sufficiency. Working paper, downloaded here.

Bakken, L., Brown, N., & Downing, B. (2017). Early childhood education: The long-term benefits. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 31, 255-259.

Deming, D. (2009). Early childhood intervention and life-cycle skill development: Evidence from Head Start. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1, 111-134.

Fosburg et al (1984) in Ludwig & Miller (2007).

Lipsey, M., Farran, D., & Durkin, K. (2018). Effects of the Tennessee prekindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 45, 155-176.

Ludwig, J., & Miller, D. (2007). Does Head Start improve childen’s life chances? Evidence from a regression discontinuity design. Quarterly Journal of Economics, Feb., 2007, 150-208.

Pages, R., Lukes, D., Bailey, D., & Duncan, G. (2019). Elusive longer-run impacts of Head Start: replications within and across cohorts. Working paper, downloaded here.

Piper, K. (2018). Early childhood education yields big benefits—just not the ones you think. Vox, Oct. 16, 2018.

Piper, K. (2019). Study: Head start improves kids’ lives. But we’re still finding out just how. Vox, Jan. 8, 2019.

Schanzenbach, D., & Bauer, L. (2016). The long-term impact of the Head Start program. Brookings Report, Aug. 19, 2016.

Walters, C. (2015). Inputs in the production of early childhood human capital: Evidence from head start. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 7, 76-102.

Zigler, Edward, and Jeanette Valentine, Project Head Start: A Legacy of the War on Poverty (New York: Free Press, 1979).

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