Does Head Start Work? Two Perspectives based on Psychology


By Rebecca Bendheim

When it comes to government programs, people love to argue. Grumpy citizens delight in fighting over why this program didn’t work because this politician made this mistake and wasted this much of their hard-earned money. What these people are really doing is bashing decisions that they know nothing about made by groups of professionals who have spent a great deal of time analyzing research and predictions to create an informed, and usually complicated, course of action. This is not the case for the claim that many psychologists have made that the national government’s Head Start program is, and will always be, a failure.

When it comes to early childhood development, psychologists ARE the experts, and many have argued against it since the ‘60s, in the first few years after Lyndon B. Johnson launched Head Start as part of his War on Poverty in 1965, and the government began spending over seven billion dollars a year to provide preschool to around a million three and four year olds from low-income families (Klein, 2011).

Betty Hart and Todd Risley are the two main psychologists cited in studies of early childhood language development, and in 1967, just two years after the launch of Head Start, they created their own early childhood intervention program and soon realized that these programs are impossible to administer successfully. Hart and Risley created a language-focused preschool in Kansas City, where they had children from a low-income area attend along with children of University of Kansas professors. They found that while they could teach the low-income students new words, they could not speed up their vocabulary growth beyond the direct teaching of the words. They tested the children a year later, and found that while the professor’s children’s vocabularies were quickly expanding, the low-income children’s vocabulary growth had slowed down considerably, reaching the level of other low income children who did not attend the preschool. After observing this failure, Hart and Risley went more in depth in their research by intensively observing the language use of families with young children in their homes. They found that by age four, children with parents on welfare have heard, on average, thirteen million different words while the average child of professional parents has been exposed to almost forty-five million words (Hart & Risley, 1995). Here is a graph illustrating their results:

According to these statistics, by the time an average child from a low income family turns four, the time when they would possibly begin attending a Head Start program, they already have the disadvantage of over thirty million words to their higher-income peers. Hart and Risley also found that children of professionals receive six encouragements to every discouragement from their parents while children with parents on welfare receive one encouragement for every two discouragements (Hart & Risley, 1995). In their final report, Hart and Risley wrote, “By age 3, an intervention must address not just a lack of knowledge or skill, but an entire general approach to experience” (Hart & Risley, 1995). In other words, no matter how much our government spends, there is no practical way to give our nation’s lower income children an equal playing field because no two-year preschool can make up for inferior parenting. Psychologists have also proven correlations between higher socioeconomic status and a more authoritative parenting style, an effective style in which parents are sensitive to their child’s needs but also discipline them appropriately (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p. 475).

Just recently, after ignoring numerous psychological studies, the government finally performed their own study of the effectiveness of Head Start and found what psychologists have been telling us from the very beginning. The Department of Health and Human Services randomly assigned children to Head Start and tested them against non-assigned peers, finding that the benefits of the program completely diminish by the time the children reach first grade (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2010). Therefore, we are spending over seven billion dollars a year for a portion of our low-income kindergarteners to know a few more words.

While the average American has little to no grounds to criticize the government’s decisions, many of our nation’s psychologists deserve to be frustrated. If our government wants what it claims to want, to get ahead in science, then they should think about listening to our nations psychologists, because with so little recognition and so many taxes, they may not stay here long.



By Meredith Sight

So, really, does Head Start do its job of preparing low SES students for kindergarten? YES! Head Start gives its students an academic preparation that they never would have because of their economic class. While upper- and middle-income students might be enrolled in private daycare or nurseries, poor children most often do not have such resources. Head Start addresses this inequality by creating a program with a sound curricular foundation. But how do we know if Head Start is really succeeding in this mission? In determining whether Head Start is successful in meeting its goal of preparing pre-school children for kindergarten, it is important to remember that test statistics alone are not the only criterion. Many studies show that students and their families coming from low-economic backgrounds benefit from measurable cognitive, social, and emotional advantages that Head Start gives them.

Within in twelve years after the program’s launching, Mann, Harrell, and Hurt conducted comprehensive on-site studies in 1977 for a federally funded review of the program which confirmed that those graduating from Head Start programs entered grade school near to or at national standards of school readiness and maintained this advantage in the first years of school (Washington and Bailey, 1995, pp. 127-128). These studies indicate that when compared to other disadvantaged children, Head Start participants generally fare better as they enter their primary years. The program prepares these children who otherwise would have fallen behind noticeably in their first years of school.

Head Start’s success is partially a result of its focus on active teacher involvement. Teachers take time in their Head Start classrooms not only to teach the basics, like colors, numbers and letters, but also to encourage social and emotional growth, which is critical. The more closely the teacher works with the student, the stronger the bond, and the more the students learn quickly (Conner, Knight, & Cross, 1997; Gauvain, 2001, p. 163). In addition, Head Start’s innovative approaches have a positive impact on students’ self-confidence and self-discipline. For instance, a seventeen-year study indicated that, at the end of the Head Start year, program participants scored higher in self-esteem, achievement motivation, and social behavior (McKey et al., 1985).

Recognizing that teachers alone cannot address the students’ needs and that parental involvement has a substantial impact on children’s success (Parke & Buriel, 1998, 2006, p. 469), Head Start enlists the involvement and help of the students’ parents. Walter Emmerich, a child development specialist, revealed in his 1973 study that those parents who participated were more aware of their children’s social, emotional and intellectuals needs (Emmerich, 1973). Research documents that positive parent interaction enhances children’s attitudes toward learning and themselves, which, in turn helps children develop a more positive outlook on life (Bradley et al., 1994, p. 314).

While Head Start takes pride in its successes, it is not without its critics, especially those who insist on measuring the program’s effectiveness in addressing immediate improvement in school performance in black-and-white statistics. Head Start advocates counter the most prevailing criticism by pointing out that success is not only measured by exam statistics, but also measured by the social and emotional growth. There is, in fact, data to support Head Start’s impact on the improved social and emotional well-being of its graduates. For example, Julius Richmond, director of Health Policy at Harvard Medical School, argued that long-term advantages of Head Start could be demonstrated as well. His data argues that fewer Head Start students were assigned to special education classes when they reached middle school age (14% for Head Start students; 29% for those non-Head Start students), fewer were retained from grade to grade (25% versus 31%), and increased achievement test scores in high school (Richmond, 1988, p. 311). Richmond also determined that Head Start students revealed encouraging social and emotional advantages. There was less teenage pregnancy (6.4% versus 11.7%) and crime (31% versus 51%) (Richmond, 1988, p. 312). These data confirm that Head Start students experienced fewer social and emotional challenges. While any one program can never completely eliminate the effects of poverty, these data offer evidence that programs like Head Start make significant headway in countering their damage.

It is obvious that any preschool intervention program cannot do away with the consequences of poverty, like inadequate housing, poor nutrition, and unsatisfactory health care. These are monumental problems, but there is reason to believe that Head Start does make a significant impact on students who are struggling with such issues. Evidence offered in criticism of Head Start neglects to take into consideration the program’s significant contribution to the improved welfare of poor children who are enrolled in the program. The research on Head Start paints a much more comprehensive and encouraging picture. For poor children, Head Start marks a measurably significant change in their lives.



Emmerich, W. (1973). Preschool Personal-Social Behaviors: Relationships with

Socioeconomic Status, Cognitive Skills, and Tempo. US Office of Child

Development Disadvantaged Children and Their First School Experiences ETS-Head Start Longitudinal Study PR, 73(33), 1-73.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (pp. 800, 638-3775). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Klein, J. (2011, July 7). Time to Ax Public Programs That Don’t Yield Results. Retrieved November 29, 2013, from,8599,2081778,00.html

McKey, R. H. (1985). The Impact of Head Start on Children, Families and

Communities. The U.S. Administration for Children, Youth and Families. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Richmond, M.D., J. B. (1988). Early Education. Bulletin of the New York

Academy of Medicine, 65(3), 307-317.

Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2006). The Family. How children develop (3rd ed., p. 475). New York: Worth Publishers.

Washington, V., & Bailey, U. J. (1995). Project Head Start: Models and

Strategies for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.

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