Research

Preschool, Home, and School Contexts as Determinants of the Impacts of Head Start

Investigator: Greg Duncan (with PI Elizabeth Gershoff at University of Texas at Austin)

Funding: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Background

Head Start is the largest federal program providing an enriched early childhood education for more than 900,000 children from low-income families. The program offers nutritional, health, and social services to both the children and their families. A substantial body of non-experimental and quasi-experimental research has linked Head Start participation with (often modest) gains in children's developmental outcomes. Yet research to date has failed to examine how variability across Head Start centers is associated with variability in children's developmental outcomes, and how the quality of home and school environments experienced after Head Start might sustain, or curtail, the impacts of Head Start over time.

Project Description

To address this knowledge gap, this research goes beyond questions of simple impact to consider the conditions and contexts that make Head Start more or less effective. Specifically, we examine the extent to which the structure and quality of Head Start centers, parenting behavior and the home environment, and the structure and quality of elementary schools might mediate or moderate program impacts over time.

Project Aims

  • To identify to what extent, and by what processes, aspects of Head Start quality promote children's cognitive development, social-emotional skills, and physical health
  • To determine the role of parents in creating and sustaining positive long-term impacts of Head Start on children's cognitive development, social-emotional skills, and physical health
  • To examine the extent to which subsequent school experiences moderate the persistence of Head Start effects on children's cognitive development, social-emotional skills, and physical health

Methodology 

Our interdisciplinary team (from the fields of human development, education, economics, and social work) is utilizing two large, federally sponsored data-sets: the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey, 1997 Cohort (FACES-97), and the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS). Each study included a nationally representative sample of 3- and 4-year-old low-income children attending Head Start, along with one control group of children on waiting lists for Head Start in the HSIS.

Analysis

Research questions will be addressed using a combination of multiple regression, piecewise regression, latent class growth analysis, and multiple group analysis. Of particular interest will be interactions between treatment condition in the HSIS and center quality in the preschool year and school quality in the elementary school years.

Study Benefits

Findings are expected to inform the national discussion regarding the Head Start program by going beyond the simplistic question "Does Head Start work?" to examine the more complex questions of how, and under what circumstances, Head Start is more or less effective in promoting children's cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. Of particular relevance will be the extent to which the structure and quality of Head Start centers, parenting behavior and the home environment, and the structure and quality of elementary schools might enhance, or curtail, the positive impacts of Head Start over time.