Does Head Start Work?

Rohan Mascarenhas,Russell Sage Foundation
September 28, 2011

Jens Ludwig, an economist and former RSF Visiting Scholar, has co-authored a new working paper that reexamines the value of Head Start, the federal early education program.

Founded in 1965, Head Start now serves around 900,000 children at a cost of over $7 billion. A recent study, the National Head Start Impact Study (NHSIS), renewed concerns that the program needs to be reformed or even scrapped after it found Head Start’s impact on test scores faded after students entered the first grade. Citing the study, Joe Klein of Time Magazine wrote "Head Start simply does not work," and others said the federal government should shift resources elsewhere.

After reviewing the evidence, Ludwig and his co-authors caution against completely dismissing Head Start:

"We argue that these negative assessments of Head Start’s lasting benefits for children are premature, given how little we currently understand about how and why early childhood interventions improve long-term life chances. The initial impacts of Head Start found in the NHSIS for recent cohorts of program participants are about the same size as those estimated for children who participated in the program in the 1960s through 1980s. For those cohorts of Head Start participants, the program seems to have produced long-term benefits large enough to outweigh program costs – despite fade-out of initial test-score impacts."

The full paper can be read here. For more on the early childhood period, buy a copy of the RSF book Consequences of Growing Up Poor, an examination of the paths through which economic deprivation damages children at all stages of their development. You can also read the first chapter for free.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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