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During the 2013 State of the Union Address, Barack Obama said

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Obama never defined what he meant by learning or high-quality preschool, but he used this statement to propose a new federal pre-K program for low and moderate income Americans. Education advocates expect the program to resemble a proposal in an article and report called Investing in Our Children which states

Finally, our fourth objective is to increase enrollment in Early Head Start, a program that has proven to be extremely effective. Therefore, in addition to the policies laid out above, we also propose to double enrollment in Early Head Start, which currently enrolls 120,000 children at an average annual cost of $12,000 per child. Doubling Early Head Start would cost an additional $1.44 billion per year and $11.5 billion over 10 years.

Is Head Start effective at improving the performance of children?

Does this performance increase (if any) have a lasting effect ("for the rest of their lives"), or does it fade after several years?

  • Just to give color as to why people would care about its effectiveness: From fiscal year 1965 to 2009, Congress spent $167.5 billion in 2009 dollars on Head Start. From 2000 to 2009, the average annual appropriation for Head Start was $7.6 billion, that was before Obama raised the spending. – user4012 Feb 18 '13 at 17:09
  • Is it being close-voted because it's a skeptics.SE style question? – Andrew Grimm Jun 10 '18 at 7:23
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TL;DR: There was a very minor effect lasting past first grade (vocabulary), but overall, by 1st and especially 3rd grade there was virtually no effect.

So no, there was no lasting effect.

This is based on a multi-year study/set of studies done on behalf of U.S. US Department of Health & Human Services/ Administration for Children & Families


Head Start Impact Study: Final Report, Executive Summary - January 15, 2010

  • There were no impacts for 4-year-olds in the cognitive domain at the end of kindergarten.

  • At the end of 1st grade, there is suggestive evidence of a positive impact of access to Head Start on PPVT (vocabulary) scores. [DVK's note: specifically, their impact was detailed to be p=0.09].

    The average 2003 PPVT score for a child in the 4-year-old control group was at the 27th percentile among children in the general population. Head Start group children’s scores were four percentile points higher, at the 31st percentile. For the 3-year-olds, average 2003 PPVT scores were at the 29th percentile for the control group and the 32nd percentile for the Head Start group.

  • No significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year.


Similar results from Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report from 2012 (same source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services/ Administration for Children & Families):

Please note that I have excised any paragraphs pertaining to (usually positive) impacts and benefits that were DURING head start - this was done for brevity and not some nefarious attempt to bias the answer by omitting postitive-sounding bites; otherwise the full quote from the report ran for 2 pages.

  • Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

  • ... In contrast, there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.

  • In terms of children’s well-being, ... However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort.

  • In the health domain, early favorable impacts were noted for both age cohorts, but by the end of 3rd grade, there were no remaining impacts for either age cohort. Finally, with regard to parenting practices, the impacts were concentrated in the younger cohort.

  • In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.


Further, from "Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report, Executive Summary December 21, 2012" (this seems to be pretty much the same report as the previous one, but was listed separately on HHS website):

  • Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

  • .... In contrast, there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.

  • In terms of children’s well-being, there is also clear evidence that access to Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort.

  • 1
    You assume the stated goal of head start is to get children doing better in school but it is infact a way to get at risk children in to a position where they can begin to assess the need of the government to get involved with their families. I read a statistic that in IL DCFS is more than three times as likely to be involved with a head start childs family than one that does not go to head start, or uses private preschool. – SoylentGray Feb 19 '13 at 1:14
  • @Chad - to someone familiar with soviet history, that sounded INCREDIBLY sinister and evil. Google "Pavlik Morozov" - hopefully, some English material exists. – user4012 Feb 19 '13 at 2:54
  • It is more that the state will step in and remove the child(ren) if the parents are not caring for the child in a way approved by the state agency. Though there have been cases where the parents were dealing drugs, and other criminal activities out of their homes where the investigations have resulted in parents being arrested. – SoylentGray Feb 19 '13 at 15:32
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The Economist has recently had several articles talking about the efficacy of preschool programmes.

From Human Capital:

Mr Obama's appears to be drawing heavily on the work of James Heckman, a Nobel-laureate economist at the University of Chicago, who in turn draws heavily on two relatively small studies, one focusing on the Perry Preschool Project and the other on the Carolina Abecedarian Project. Charles Murray, a conservative sociologist, sums up the standard complaint against generalising from the results of these projects:

The samples were small. Perry Preschool had just 58 children in the treatment group and 65 in the control group, while Abecedarian had 57 children in the treatment group and 54 in the control group. In both cases the people who ran the program were also deeply involved in collecting and coding the evaluation data, and they were passionate advocates of early childhood intervention. These shortcomings do not automatically disqualify the results, but think of it this way: if the case against the efficacy of early childhood interventions rested on two studies with small samples conducted by people who were openly hostile to such interventions, no one would pay any attention to them. I think Mr Murray's right. So then what? Katherine Mangu Ward of Reason writes:

If only we had some kind of large scale well-tracked pilot program that could give us some information about whether that is a good idea. Oh wait! We do! It's called Head Start, the $8 billion federal program catering to more than 1 million low-income kids.Better still, the federal government has done a huge study, tracking 5,000 kids and comparing them to kids who did not have access to Head Start.The findings are not impressive. A 2010 analysis of that group found that the cognitive, health, parenting, and social benefits of the program had vanished by first grade. And a 2012 look at the third grade outcomes was even less heartening, with no discernible academic gains and teachers reporting slightly more behavioral problems in the Head Start kids.

This is basically the state of the debate over subsidised pre-school for families who can't otherwise afford it. If you favour the idea, you cite Mr Heckman on the Perry and Abecedarian results; if you oppose it, you cite the lacklustre performance of Head Start.

From Learning for the very young, there is the sense that it could be good, but nailing it down is hard:

The most recent report by the OECD, a rich-world think-tank, in 2009, found that 15-year-olds who had attended pre-schools for more than a year performed better (even accounting for socioeconomic background) than those who had attended for only a year or not at all. In Belgium, France and Israel pupils educated at pre-schools had much higher reading scores than those who had stayed at home. Yet establishing the precise link between time in pre-school and later achievement is difficult. .... Yet the key to success, if any, is unclear. Measuring other data, a report on pre-school availability and teaching standards called “Starting Well” (compiled for the Lien Foundation by the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company) placed Finland top (it scored direly in the OECD study). At least 98% of children aged five or six are in pre-school education there. Finland also dominates the overall league tables for education performance, so perhaps the scope for improvement is slight. Other enthusiastic providers of pre-school education like Sweden, Norway, France and Belgium and Denmark do not score particularly highly on attainment in later education, whereas Japan, which combines early-years provision with a fiercely competitive exam culture, excels. So too does South Korea, where the state until now has provided under half of pre-school places. So pre-school is no panacea, says Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the OECD’s big triennial PISA report on educational attainment. “Drilling children” in early years does not lead automatically to learning gains, he says.

Finally, in Social Mobility in America, they argue the chief effect is to help overcome socio-economic barriers. In arguing against an entrenched meritocracy (which essentially just becomes a new aristocratic class), The Economist suggests that early opportunities help select the best children early on, so that resources can flow to them.

  • Is there any data backing up Economists guess that said effect actually manifests itself in Head Start, as opposed to being merely desirable. – user4012 Feb 19 '13 at 2:58
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NO. Pre-school doesn't guarantee any lasting affects on a child's life. There is no accurate or relatively accurate way to gauge a child's educational outcome based on something as small as pre-school. There are many factors that affect a student's performance. Death in the family, trouble at home/neighborhood/school, parental financial situation, social engagement with family and peers alike, whether the kid is shy, spontaneous, creative, mathematical or more of a problem solver, whether a child is naturally talented at something, even down to the child's diet just to name a few can affect/shift performance through children's lives. You would also have to consider how a lot of bright people come from some of the poorest and ill equipped countries in the world, along with their educational system and personal backgrounds.

There are plenty of children who grew up being aces living in bad conditions, just like there are plenty that grew up in the best conditions, but have poor education. There are also those kids that didn't start of well in school, but went to college graduating with high grades along with those kids that excelled in school, but bombed college academically. Whether pre-school had any significant influence is too narrow and random of an area to measure 25 years. So no, not by itself.

  • Or within 3 years it seems. – user1873 Feb 22 '13 at 14:40
  • I don't think you understand how statistics work or what anecdotal evidence is. – MJC Jun 9 '18 at 9:46

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