More recent data found no long-term benefits for Head Start. Why? – Head Start was launched in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” and was designed to prepare young people from low-income families for kindergartens with early education, health services, and family support. At present, more than 1 million children, most of them aged 3 and 4, participate in federal-funded programs.
The Deming Study compared the Principal’s children with their siblings who were not in school. Head Start participants see a higher high school graduation rate but also an increase in college and health attendance. Other studies, using different methods, have found similar results encouraging.
Another recent paper shows that the effect spans generations: even children of children who attend Head Start soon after starting are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system.
But when Lukes (a Deming student) and researcher at the University of California, Irvine, updated the Deming study with more recent data, they found something confusing.
For those born between 1976 and 1986, they, like Deming, find Head Start providing clear benefits. However, for children born later – mostly between 1986 and 1996 – the benefits disappear and even reverse in some cases. As young adults, Head Start participants were 8 percentage points more likely to be unemployed or not at school.
When researchers combine the two groups, it is washing – there are no obvious, good or bad long-term effects.
It is not clear what explains the very different findings across groups of students. Other research shows that the benefits of Head Start are greater when children also attend well-funded K-12 schools with better teachers. But school funding in general has declined from time to time, so a decline in the quality of K-12 schools seems an unlikely explanation.
Deming hypothesizes that conditions for low income families have improved since previous research on Head Start. This program not only provides education, but also a range of health and anti-poverty services. Because groups of students are then born to mothers who are better educated and become families with somewhat higher incomes, maybe some of them lack Head Start services.
“Although in a narrow sense the impact of Head Start has diminished, in a broader sense it is a great victory that more and more children get high-quality physical, mental and academic support in the critical early years,” Deming said. “This research does not show this directly, but fits the narrative.”