Mind the Gap

 /  April 11, 2016, 4:37 p.m.


There is a significant disparity between children of low and high socioeconomic status families in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills that seriously affect “school readiness” of preschool-aged children. Head Start, a preschool program first introduced under President Johnson’s Great Society, seeks to ameliorate these inequities by providing low-income children with preschool education that would otherwise be unavailable to their demographic. The role of preschool programs in stimulating early academic and social growth is as important as it is inequitable. There is clear evidence to support the need for universal preschool to close the achievement gap, but Head Start preschool has seen variable results in long-term benefits, largely because of spending deficits between a well-funded preschool and underfunded public schools. Studies performed throughout Head Start’s existence produce inconclusive results, which leaves policy makers paralyzed on how to move forward.

According to one recent study, “Inequalities at the Starting Gate,” social class is the single largest factor that influences how prepared students are to learn when they enter kindergarten. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students begin kindergarten well behind their more affluent peers in both reading and math, as well as in non-cognitive, or social, skills. The skill levels of the child increase proportionally with their family’s socioeconomic status. This striking correlation between parents’ economic resources and their children’s school readiness is not new information; it is this evidence that originally prompted the creation of Head Start under President Johnson’s Great Society. This is where preschool programs can be beneficial in addressing this inequity in performance related to socioeconomic status. Other early childcare options include daycare, which is unregulated and varies widely in structure, or staying at home with the child. For most low-income families, the lack of paid family leave prohibits them from the latter option, but their financial status also prevents them from enrolling their child in expensive private preschools. Preschool puts the child in a stimulating environment in which they interact with peers and engage in cognitive activity, rather than a daycare program where the children are monitored without a structured learning environment.

The results of Head Start preschool programs and the participating student performance are variable. Critics believe that President Obama’s “Preschool For All” initiative throws money at a problem without addressing the shortcomings of the programs currently available. Union Watch Dog, an arm of the California Policy Center, has argued that “the only lasting impact of Head Start program is on taxpayer’s wallets,” while Opportunity Lives opposes these “unwise” spending measures, given the irregular results of performance studies and lack of evidence for long-term success. These concerns address the economic investment Head Start requires, yet they ignore the benefits that it likely provides.

Cost-benefit analyses have been performed to address some of these concerns. Robert G. Lynch, an economics professor at Washington College, references nineteen programs, including Head Start, that he has found provide successful outcomes for the participants. For Lynch, success is defined as a program’s ability to meet set goals, not financial solubility of those goals. For Head Start, success would mean that children are testing better than they would have without a preschool education. Some of Lynch’s intervention programs provide both significant benefits to the families they serve as well as a positive economic return, while others do not. This research could be used to eliminate all of the programs that are “losing” money, but Lynch believes that, “there are unquantifiable benefits to early childhood intervention” that cannot be accounted for in his research. Quantifiable results include student performance throughout the academic career as evidenced by testing and teacher evaluations. However, it is likely that the unquantifiable benefits of Head Start serve a greater societal importance: enhancement of a child’s emotional and physical well-being and improvement of long-term success, addressing the effects of systemic poverty, including that participants are more likely to finish high school and less likely to be charged with a crime later in life.

Long-term success of Head Start has been difficult to determine, as there are a variety of factors that influence classroom success other than preschool attendance. A National Affair report, suggests that while children showed some improvement during their Head Start enrollment, there is little evidence to support long-term quantifiable benefits in the form of increased test scores from participating in the program. This is problematic for the proponents of Head Start because it implies that these children regress and fall behind their peers once entering into kindergarten rather than continue the progress made in preschool. There is speculation that this decrease in performance is related to the underfunded and poor performing public schools that the low-income Head Start participants attend. Head Start preschool funding varies by state, however some estimates infer that per pupil spending reaches as high as $20,000 per year for year round, full-time care. This is nearly double the per pupil spending in most public schools, which averages approximately $11,000 per year. Even if you were to exclude the Head Start spending during the summer, when public schools are not in session, they still spend significantly more per student. This could be part of the reason that the academic benefits accrued in Head Start dissipate as children progress in school: we take away the support rather than expand it.  

A study commissioned by the Department of Health and Humans Services (DHHS), as a requirement for their reauthorization, pushes back on the finding that there are no long-term benefits. The DHHS study found that the Head Start enrollees performed better in than their peers from the control group during the year (or two) they attended preschool, particularly in the areas of language, literacy and prewriting. By the time these students were in the third grade four years later, most of the significant favorable impact dissipated, but the students did not fall behind their non-Head Start peers, as indicated in the National Affairs study. There are a few important demographic cases in which Head Start children maintained the benefits: children in high-risk households and African American children were all found to have sustained benefits from Head Start preschool. The socioeconomic study mentioned previously confirms that “racial minorities’ lower socioeconomic status largely explains gaps that appear to be due to race,” which accounts for the African American students’ improvement based on their Head Start participation. These subgroups alone would speak to the benefits that Head Start provides because it is precisely these underserved, high-risk children who are beginning kindergarten behind their more affluent peers.

One concern with the DHHS study is that the control group attended non-Head Start preschool while others stayed at home. This is problematic for an evaluation of Head Start efficacy because the low-income children who are enrolled in Head Start would likely not otherwise have access to preschool programs that promote the kind of cognitive and noncognitive skills necessary for school. It is possible that if the control group was more reflective of the reality of the early childcare situation for low-income families, that is, that they do not have the resources to attend preschool at all, the results might show an even bigger improvement from the control group to the Head Start participants. A more appropriate evaluation might compare children who were unenrolled in preschool against those children who attended Head Start.

There are clearly faults in the Head Start program. Not all children have the same access to quality care, as the programs vary by state, and once children leave Head Start, they are subjected to variable and often underserved public school districts. Additionally, enrollment in these programs does not guarantee participation, which can also skew the studies about Head Start impact. However, it is undisputed that the negative effects that low socioeconomic status has on a child’s skills upon entering kindergarten only compound with time. It would be a mistake to write off universal preschool as an unnecessary public expenditure. Without access to universal preschool, young children of low socioeconomic status are unfairly condemned to a slow and hard start in education. From day one, these kids face an uphill battle against peers who come prepared with superior resources and will ultimately fail to reach the same level of education. Changing this system requires addressing the root causes of success in education and that starts with universal preschool.

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Haley Schwab