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Study: Head Start accrues most benefits to kids with little home stimulation

Jenaveve colors rainbows on her day off from a Head Start program at Washington Elementary in Pomona.
Jenaveve colors rainbows on her day off from a Head Start program at Washington Elementary in Pomona.
Grant Slater/KPCC

Head Start preschool programs make a difference to children who get little academic stimulation at home, according to a new study from U.C. Irvine. For children who are rarely read to at home, or whose parents don’t work with them on letter and number recognition or word pronunciation, daily Head Start classes matter, the report found.

As debate continues as to whether this publicly-funded preschool for low-income children has lasting academic impacts, the new study found that one year of Head Start can make a “bigger difference for children from homes where parents provide less early academic stimulation,” according to a press statement.

Head Start is a federally-funded program and serves over one million children per year. U.C. Irvine researchers looked at interviews with Head Start mothers from the beginning and end of the school year.

The “Head Start Impact Study” asked questions of 5,000 mothers nationwide whose 3- and 4-year old children were entering a Head Start program for the first time.

Lead researcher, Elizabeth Miller, from the U.C. Irvine School of Education, said her team looked specifically at the mother’s answers to questions regarding “pre-academic stimulation” in the home. For children whose mothers reported low to moderate levels of academic interaction at home, data showed they gained more from being in the program than children who read more or engaged more academically at home. However, overall, these same students did not perform as well as the children from higher-stimulation homes.

Researchers said the results show that Head Start is beneficial to children’s early literacy and math, and that if parents follow up at home, children do even better. Simply working with children on how to pronounce letters at home can help the child succeed more in preschool, Miller said.

 "It's not just about academic drilling," she said, it's also about parents teaching children how to behave and interact with other children. "Parents are critical partners in children's early learning, and Head Start values partnering with parents," Miller added.

This study is the latest salvo in the ongoing debate on whether Head Start actually works and is worth the public funds. A 2010 Department of Health and Human Services study, commissioned when Congress wanted answers to this very question, found the effects of Head Start learning diminished by 3rd grade. That trend was dubbed the "fade out" effect.

That finding is frequently used by opponents of Head Start as fodder to end the program. Head Start supporters decry the study methodology as flawed.

Miller said the U.C. Irvine team used data from this same HHS study, but focused only on the year the child attended Head Start and not the years that followed. For that reason, the new study does not counter earlier findings that Head Start's benefits "fade-out" by 3rd grade.

The UC Irvine study results are published in the current issue of the journal "Child Development."