HHS: Head Start Students Do Worse in Math Than Non-Head Start Students

Fred Lucas | February 21, 2013 | 4:12pm EST
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In this Jan. 23, 2013 photo Jefferson Elementary third graders Qwalynde Cain, left, and Sata Lumpkins work on a reading assignment during class in Wichita, Kan. (AP Photo/Mike Hutmacher)

(CNSNews.com) – Children who were in the federal Head Start program do worse in math and have more problems with social interaction by the third grade than children who were not in the program, according to a large-scale study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The congressionally mandated study evaluated 4,667 elementary students. The main conclusion is that overall, the $8 billion Head Start program provides no measurable benefit for children by the time they reach the third grade compared to the sampling of children in similar economic circumstances who were not in the program, referred to as the “control group” in the study.

“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 HHS study said. “The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impact on children.”

The Obama administration has recently warned that if the automatic spending adjustments in the sequester occur on March 1, 70,000 children will lose a place in Head Start. Further, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for universal pre-school for all children.

The study divided those who enter Head Start at the age of 3 and those who enter at the age of 4.

Math scores are actually poorer for students who were in Head Start, the study said. But, Head Start students averaged better in reading/language arts by third grade.

“In the 3-year-old cohort’s kindergarten year, a significant difference was found in the school-wide average math proficiency scores for Head Start children and control group children, with the difference favoring the control group,” the study said.

“For the 3-year-old cohort in the 3rd grade, a significant difference was found between average reading/language arts proficiency scores at the schools attended by the Head Start and control group children, this time favoring the Head Start group,” the study found.

The report later said, “However, the schools attended by the control group children in the 3-year-old cohort during their kindergarten year reported a significantly higher percentage of students at or above the proficient level in math than the schools attended by the Head Start group children.”

The report found a lower promotion rate among the Head Start students.

“In kindergarten, teachers reported poorer math skills for children in the Head Start group than for those in the control group,” the study said. “At the end of 1st grade, there was suggestive evidence of a favorable impact on oral comprehension. Yet, at the end of 3rd grade, there was only one significant impact, and it was unfavorable—the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child promotion rate than the parents of the non-Head Start group children.”

The study also found issues with the social skills of children who were in Head Start.

“In contrast, at the end of 1st grade, teachers reported more shy behavior and more problems in their interactions with the Head Start children,” the report said. “At the end of 3rd grade, teachers reported more problems in their relationship with Head Start children and a lower percentage of Head Start children in the normal category for emotional symptoms. Children’s own reports showed one unfavorable impact at the end of 3rd grade (peer relations).”

Parents seemed to have a different view than teachers of the behavior of the students in the Head Start program.

“There were two favorable impacts on parental reports of their child’s behavior, providing moderate evidence of less aggressive behavior for children in the Head Start group compared to children in the non-Head Start group and suggestive evidence of fewer total problem behaviors for the Head Start group children,” the HHS study said.

“However, teacher reports showed unfavorable impacts: strong evidence of an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms and suggestive evidence of unfavorable impacts on closeness and having a positive relationship with the teacher,” the study found.

The study did however stress that a majority of children in the “control group” had another form of pre-school. “About 40 percent of the control group did not receive formal preschool education and, for those who did, quality was generally lower than in Head Start,” the study said.

The study concludes that there are many unanswered questions about the federal program, but it cites numerous private studies from the last two decades with similar findings.

“Considering only outcomes through early elementary and middle childhood, results for the HSIS cognitive outcomes are in line with other experimental and non-experimental early education studies,” the HHS study said. “Non-experimental Head Start studies showed initial positive impacts of a roughly similar magnitude to those found in the HSIS that dissipated as the children entered early elementary school.”

The “Final Thoughts” portion of the study said, “All we can say is after the initially realized cognitive benefits for the Head Start children, these gains were quickly made up by children in the non-Head Start group.”

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