The University Record, April 11, 1994

‘Head Start’ gains compromised by inferior education later

During the recent debate over increasing federal funding for Project Head Start, the preschool program for disadvantaged children, supporters cited numerous studies documenting the immediate gains in children’s academic and social skills. Opponents cited studies showing that by third or fourth grade, the advantages gained from Head Start had vanished.

Now a U-M study indicates that one key reason for long-term Head Start “fade out” is the low quality of the subsequent education these children receive.

“In eighth grade, the schools’ Head Start ‘graduates’ attend unsafe places where average achievement levels are low, the educational climate is unstimulating, educational resources are limited and relations between staff and students are not harmonious,” says education Prof. Valerie E. Lee.

She and graduate student Susanna Loeb presented a paper titled “Where Do Head Start Attendees End Up? One Reason Why Preschool Effects Are Not Sustained” at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Lee and Loeb investigated the link between children’s educational experience in preschool and the quality of schools they attended as eighth graders, using a national sample of nearly 15,000 students in 975 public and private schools.

About 14 percent of the students attended Head Start preschools, 44 percent attended other types of preschools and 42 percent did not attend preschool. As expected, Lee and Loeb found wide background differences among the three groups, with the family income of Head Start graduates less than one-half that of students who attended other preschools. More than 41 percent of former Head Start students are Black, 16 percent are Hispanic. Their parents have less education, on average, than those of the other two groups.

But when Lee and Loeb took into account these considerable demographic differences, they found that the schools Head Start graduates attended were substantially worse than those attended by other eighth graders with comparable family backgrounds but different preschool experiences.

“Our results suggest one reason why the early advantage Head Start programs provide to poor children fades out over time,” Lee says. “No matter how much early ‘boost’ these children receive from their Head Start experience, the systematically lower quality of the schools they attend thereafter, and the inferior education they receive in those schools, is sure to undermine any early advantage.”

Lee emphasizes that this finding should not be interpreted as evidence that Head Start programs don’t work. “Head Start is a worthwhile program,” she says. “Many studies have shown that it has immediate benefits. But we need a public policy that provides successful academic experiences for children of poverty throughout their educational careers, rather than focusing on efforts to ‘fix’ the problem with one-year preschool programs, however successful they may be.”