Assessing the Evaluations of Early Childhood Education Programs

Chapter 15 - Head Start Impact Study
Introduction to the Original Evaluation (Excerpt)

The federal Head Start program, begun in 1965, is designed to "break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs." After reviewing the full body of Head Start research, a 1997 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded, "The body of research on current Head Start is insufficient to draw conclusions about the impact of the national program." The Head Start Amendments of 1998 mandated that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) determine the impact of Head Start on the children it serves.

Westat, in collaboration with the Urban Institute, the American Institutes for Research, and Decision Information Resources (the "Westat team"), was selected as the principal evaluation contractor and conducted a random assignment evaluation to determine the impact of Head Start. Data collection began in the fall of 2002 and ended in the spring of 2006 when the children had finished first grade. HHS awarded another contract to Westat to continue to track the children through third grade. In the first-year findings of the Impact Study, published in June 2005, the Westat team reports that Head Start has "small to moderate" impacts on fourteen out of thirty measures in the cognitive, socioemotional, parenting, and health domains for three-year- olds and on six out of thirty measures for four-year-olds. In the first-grade follow-up, published in January 2010, the Westat team found basically no differences between the program and control groups. Overall, these findings can be viewed as highly suggestive that Head Start had a very minimal impact, if any, on Head Start children and their parents.

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