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Measuring the impact of Head Start

Head Start is based on the belief that children in poverty can only make academic progress when their basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing and health care are met. According to Jen Bailey, Head Start program director at the Dane County Parent Council, the academic benefit has been very well documented. “Our assessment data show tremendous progress, particularly in social-emotional learning, language and cognitive skills,” Bailey says.

Those skills are crucial for a successful transition to Kindergarten, but just as important, Bailey says, are skills that Head Start teaches the parents: the ability to advocate for their children and stay involved in their education. This ranges from attending parent-teacher conferences to homework support to being an active member of the school community.

Head Start’s second core belief is that early childhood education is a necessary condition for success later in life. But the research is less clear on whether or not it is sufficient, since it is much harder to demonstrate the benefit of Head Start as children progress to higher grades.

Some widely cited research studies show that kids lose some of the skills we taught them in Head Start by the time they get to third grade,” Bailey admits. “But what these studies don’t take into account is what happens to those kids when they leave Head Start. We argue that it is the loss of our comprehensive family support services that leads to that loss of learning and social skills, rather than a lack of effectiveness of Head Start.”

Bailey’s point is well taken. There is not an easy fix for combating the effects of poverty on children’s academic achievement if you are limited to working only inside the school walls.

“Public schools just don’t have the funding to provide the intensity of services that we provide,” Bailey says. “It truly is a funding issue.”

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