A Head Start in the Long Race

A photo of a teacher reading a book to her preschool class.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Head Start, the federal program from the 1960s that established free preschools for 3-4 year-old kids in low-income families, is fifty years old. Which means we have two full generations of data on the long-term effects of free early schooling on future performance. Children who attended Head Start have their own children. Some of their children have children.

The Hamilton Project, a think-tank based around identifying factors that improve the national economy (and named after America’s first economist), has assembled a twenty-year analysis on the lives of Head Start children, and their results show profound benefits. Sorted by parental income, children who were enrolled are more likely to graduate from both high school and college, with higher grades and higher degrees. The effects are most pronounced in vulnerable populations like African-Americans.

Aside from educational standards, adults who were enrolled from the age of 3 rank better on skills like pre-planning and problem solving.

Perhaps most important, the Hamilton Project’s analysis also found that grown Head Start children invest much more time and effort into their own children, indicating that the program’s effects indirectly reach into the second generation.

Tempering these positive results, however, is a history of data suggesting more disappointing results of the Head Start program. Early studies appear to indicate that Head Start’s positive gains faded away by the third grade. But this is the first 20-year study, and the first study to seek out and contact adult graduates of the preschool program.

There are other programs that show similar slow-burn results. Moving to Opportunity, a program from the ‘90s that gave poor families vouchers to help them move into lower-poverty neighborhoods with better schools, showed few positive results in the kid’s grades or their family’s incomes. But Moving to Opportunity children were 15% more likely to attend college, and 5% less likely to become single parents.

“This comes up over and over in the research literature: measurable impacts fade, then they come back when they’re adults,” says Diane Schanzenbach, the director of the Hamilton Project. “It’s happened enough that it should give us pause.”

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