Head Start gives some kids more of a head start than others.
Head Start gives the kids who need it most more of an advantage. Photo by United Inner City Services.

Head Start, the largest federal program serving the developmental needs of low-income American children, has been controversial since its creation in 1965.  There is good evidence that Head Start — on average — improves the school readiness of participants, at least in the short term.  The program also has desirable longer term effects on outcomes like high school graduation, college enrollment, health, and criminal behavior.

However, some Head Start programs may be better than others.  And, some children may be helped by Head Start more than others.  We know much less about differences in the effectiveness of Head Start across centers and across groups of children.

A recent report by Howard Bloom at MDRC and Chistina Weiland at the University of Michigan addresses these two issues.  They use data from the Head Start Impact Study, a nationally representative study that used random assignment to isolate the impacts of Head Start.

The authors found that the effectiveness of Head Start varies substantially across centers, partly because the quality of alternatives to Head Start differs across locations.  They argue that “the ‘value added’ by any Head Start program depends on both the program itself and the quantity and quality of other local options for early child education.”

At the same time, the benefits of Head Start differs across groups of children. For example, children with the weakest cognitive skills and Spanish speaking children are helped most. This results in “a compensatory pattern of program effects that reduced disparities in cognitive outcomes among program-eligible children.”

You can read the full article here:

Howard Bloom, Christina Weiland. 2015. Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study. New York: MDRC.