- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

The first report from a national study on the impact of the $7 billion Head Start program finds it has little or no effect in many areas of child well-being and, in general, does not “close the gap” between low-income preschoolers and their peers in the general population.

If Head Start’s goal is to make sure all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, “I think it can do better,” said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

HHS is releasing the 333-page “Head Start Impact Study: First Year Findings” today.

According to a copy of the study obtained yesterday by The Washington Times, Head Start had a small to modest impact on about 5,000 preschoolers in their ability to identify letters, draw and name colors, but no effect on their early math skills or oral comprehension.

Regarding mood and behavior problems, such as aggressiveness, depression or hyperactivity, Head Start reduced some of these problems in 3-year-olds but not in 4-year-olds.

In terms of its overall impact on children’s health, Head Start affected only 3-year-olds. Head Start was linked to more dental care for children, but not more health insurance.

The study, which started in 2000 and is set to continue through 2006, also looked at Head Start parents’ behaviors. It found that the program was positively linked to parents’ reading to their children, doing “cultural enrichment” activities as a family and doing less spanking of 3-year-olds. However, Head Start showed no effect in helping parents make their homes safer or use “time out” as a discipline tool.

“I think this report is very consistent with what the president has been saying about Head Start for the last four years, which is that while Head Start does have some effects on some measures, the magnitude of those effects tend to be small to moderate,” Mr. Horn said.

Children leaving Head Start continue to fall behind national norms significantly, despite whatever progress they may have made, he said. “Therefore, there’s a compelling need to continue to focus on increasing the effectiveness of the Head Start program.”

The study comes as both the Senate and House consider bills to reauthorize the popular 40-year-old federal preschool program.

Senate aides yesterday agreed that the report, which they had not seen, would be useful in reforming the program.

Head Start has been in a political tug of war for several years. The Bush administration has pushed to connect the federal preschool program with state-run early-education efforts.

However, Head Start, which was started in the 1960s, doesn’t want to lose its unique federal-to-local relationship with Congress. The National Head Start Association, a trade group for the 2,500 Head Start grantees, has defended its program as effective and worked to avoid any reformulation of its funding and management system.

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