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Debunking Head Start and Early Childhood Interventions?

Posted Feb 26 2013 8:18pm
President Obama's call to provide high-quality preschool to every kid sounds promising. Do a couple years of singing the ABCs while sitting criss-cross applesauce make much difference in a kid's life? Is there any evidence that Head Start and other well-regarded programs have any lasting effects?

Let's take a historic stroll first. A couple "landmark" studies have provided both the early childhood programs and some data.  The first, the  Perry Preschool Study , An Important Study both because of its mission and its persistence, is a longitudinal project that's followed 123 African-Americans since 1962 when researchers randomly assigned the participants, 3- and 4-year olds at the time, to either get high quality early education or a few more years of the television, the backyard or the basement. Kids who went to preschool were more likely to graduate from high school, hold jobs and stay out of jail. If you're wondering about the difficulty of controlling for all the intervening variables between 1962 and 2002, you'd be on the right track. This is not the most rigorous of studies but its time span and random assignment, ambitious at the time, has earned it a special place in the educational archives.

 The other project of note, the Carolina Abecedarian Project  (yes, the ABCs) began in 1972 and rounded up 111 poor kids raised in mostly single-mother, mostly African-American households.  Kids were assigned at birth to one of 4 conditions (intervention from birth to age 5, school-age intervention grades 1-3, both or none). Basically the kids showed lasting academic benefits at age 21 only if they received the early intervention thereby sending the message to parents and schools they must get it right early on. Again, not the most rigorous of studies.

As for Head Start, well it's a huge operation and has been studied plenty. Historically these programs have showed positive if not long-lasting results. A couple recent well-publicized government studies have questioned their impact but a 2013 meta-analysis of 28 papers concluded short-term benefits...this is the depressing part...lasting only about twelve months.

It's curious why the historic studies both seem to provide evidence of benefits decades after the early interventions and studies of Head Start can't seem to find many long-lasting ones.  Now I know we're talking two golden oldies versus more modern, well-controlled studies dissected every which way but still. 

You can brush up on early intervention thanks to a short briefing from Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.  Call me biased but I have to believe a couple more years of school make a difference and not only to moms and dasd who have a couple more hours a day accounted for in terms of childcare.

Anyhow, share your thoughts on Head Start then feel free to share with me your memories of preschool. My husband didn't even go to "play school" as it was called in North Carolina back in the day. He was too shy, couldn't make it through the day. He turned out okay but he wasn't exactly an at-risk youth and his mom probably did read a few books to him.

My only recollections from preschool: sugar cookies and playing house. 
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