Early education program Head Start benefits young students, campus researchers find

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A policy brief recently published by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found children enrolled in Head Start benefit academically both in the short term and, to a lesser extent, the long term, refuting earlier research that showed the program to have marginal impact and limited scope.

Head Start is a federal program intended to provide early education to disadvantaged children before they enter kindergarten. The policy brief consisted of several studies — conducted in part by faculty in UC Berkeley’s economics department and Goldman School of Public Policy — and found that though there is a small average benefit to enrolling children in Head Start, the effects vary widely among different children and different centers.

One study by Patrick Kline and Christopher Walters, both assistant professors in the economics department, showed that Head Start increases the future earnings of its students. The conclusion came after Kline and Walters reviewed other studies of similar programs finding a correlation between test scores and future income, and applied that relationship to predict income for Head Start students.

“A dollar spent on Head Start will yield more than a dollar in earnings for participants,” Walters said in an email. “In this sense, the program is likely to pay for itself.”

Walters also hypothesized that the children who enroll in Head Start would probably otherwise attend similar publicly funded preschools, so regardless, the net cost to taxpayers is comparable.

Another study conducted by Alexander Gelber, an assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, found that Head Start increases parent involvement in the child’s learning process — the program encourages parents to help their children with homework and read to them. It also resulted in an increase in time absent parents spend with their children.

Avi Feller, also a campus assistant public policy professor, co-authored a study that compared children in Head Start to children in home care and found that there were significant benefits for those enrolled in the federal program. Another study showed that Head Start students scored higher on a vocabulary test than those who remained at home, however, there was no difference in vocabulary skills between children enrolled in Head Start and children enrolled in other center-based care programs.

The findings of these studies are in contrast to previous reports on the efficacy of Head Start. Published in 2010, The Head Start Impact Study found that Head Start did improve cognitive development in preschool-aged children, but only by a small margin and for a short time. The benefits for the children disappeared by kindergarten.

According to the policy brief, the results of the studies were different because Head Start effectiveness has changed over time. Additionally, the experiments were not conducted in the same way — for instance, Kline and Walters used random assignment while HSIS did not.

“On parental involvement in particular the previous research had only looked at a small set of data,” Gelber said. “We looked at a broader set of outcomes, and found there was a very positive and significant impact.”

Anderson Lanham is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AndersonLanham.