Debunking Head Start and Early Childhood Interventions?

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. 


Awesome Mom said...

I approach it as a more social thing. It may do amazing things for kids that have less involved parents but for my kids I am not terribly worried if they go or not. My middle son so far has been the only one to go and he got the first year free because he was a peer model for the special ed preschool. We moved and since he was used to going to school we enrolled him in a play based program.

My youngest son is approaching the age of going but in the years since his older brother went there has been a change in teachers and I am not thrilled with what I have been hearing about her. He is more than ready for kindergarten right now so I am not currently planning on sending him next year. I will miss the break that I would have gotten but such is life.

I went to preschool and the thing I really remember was that there was a bath tub that has carpet in it so you to take a book and read in. I thought that was pretty cool.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Awesome, I hear you on the social aspects of preschool, we're not the only ones in that boat. Speaking of which, a bath tub with carpet? Fabulous. Much better than a reading nook.

Barbara TherExtras said...

Heh. I'm so old, there was no preschool when I was 4 years old. Kindergarten was a new concept and I and my siblings stayed at home until first grade, at which time each of us moved through a slightly different learning trajectory ending with HS for 2 and graduate degrees for 2. BTW, some of us struggled more to complete HS but due to our parents the alternative was not an option.

My bias, formed from both personal experience as a child, graduate education AND parenting, is opposite yours, Polly.

Sharing that in the next comment.

Barbara TherExtras said...

"a couple more years of school make a difference" - to some children, agreed. But not enough to prompt national or mandated public policy and money to provide and/or require children to attend.

I require more than "curious" differences between older less rigorous research & more recent well-implemented and interpreted research to form my bias. I thought you did, too, Polly! (Keyed with complete friendliness and collegial respect!)

Admitting I have not read your more recent posts on this same topic, but will comment on them as I can.

Probably one more on this post, however.

Barbara TherExtras said...

All interventions (preschool programs) are not created equal.

Instead of pouring money into taking young children out of their dysfunctional homes for a couple of hours, how about diverting that money into real solutions to dysfunction and poverty of parents (people who inseminate and give birth to babies)?

Preschool on a broad scale is not the answer. The studies you report here validate the low return on investment for preschool and Headstart. In the deep and tragic problems of public education, adding a year or two at the beginning is sad, near mad.

Thanks for providing the forum for this topic, Polly

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Barbara, I've missed you! And your ability to mix it up! Yes this is some rusty and dusty data but there is a raft of newer research lending even more mixed results to the debate.

This is a perfect example where the data doesn't provide an easy answer or solution. Noted!

But you're right, I can't stop wondering about the kids who don't really have a choice and don't have many if any opportunity to sit on the colored squares then grow up and suspect it was all a well-orchestrated waste of time. So no, even though it's not completely, without a shred of doubt supported and I do enjoy a good counter-argument and also worry about the future implications of mandated preschool (e.g., pushing reading on toddlers, heck, babies) I am still on board for some early intervention.

Barbara TherExtras said...

Does early intervention have to be in form of preschool?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Certainly not but it is often delivered either in conjunction or as part of a school-based curriculum...why?

Michelle Gallardo said...

I do agree that the quality of a program has a lot to do with interventions. It has been proven that it can work but also the quality of the person educating them is just as important. The parent being involved in their child's education makes a huge difference in whether they do well or not, it does not just rest of the shoulders of the teachers and their assistance or administrative staff. Actually children who do go to preschool tend to do better socially and gather the social skills needed to be ready for grade school. Early childhood education focuses on groups from birth to 3rd grade so from birth to about 8 years of age. The debunking of this is junk it does work or I wouldn't be in this field.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Michelle, so what do you do in the field? Are you a teacher? So as you point out there are a lot of variables involved, a lot of different programs, and a lot at stake so it is important to figure out what works and what doesn't. I'd love to see what we'll be doing 10, 20, 50 years from now to get kids ready for school.