Head Start is a success aiding poor children, boosting state

Allyson Shelton is executive director of Kentucky Head Start Association.
Allyson Shelton is executive director of Kentucky Head Start Association.

Every child who starts school unready is at risk for a lifetime of costly challenges, costs shared by all Kentuckians. Head Start, as the nation's largest preschool program, has a vital role in reducing these risks for Kentucky's most vulnerable children and families.

Serving 30 million children since 1965, Head Start promotes school readiness for children in low-income families by addressing their deficits in early learning, health and family functioning. Head Start has enabled many of its alumni to become entrepreneurs, members of Congress, teachers, doctors, artists — and great parents.

Even so, our national investment in Head Start warrants study of its efficacy. The inherent challenges for such research are seen in an early study of Head Start's impact in 2002. That study struggled with its control group — most children evaluated were in some type of early-learning program with some children in both groups using Head Start programs. It also struggled to account for low-income children who left high-quality Head Starts to enter low-quality elementary schools.

The results promoted a misconception that Head Start gains fade out by third grade.Ongoing study of Head Start's impact since 2003 has corrected such flaws and show very different outcomes.

Steve Barnett of the National Institute of Early Education Research, an occasional critic of Head Start, analyzed data collected from 2003 to 2009, finding that the language and literacy gains during those years were twice those of children in control groups.

In 2012, researchers at Mississippi State University looked at a Head Start program serving more than 12,000 children. The results were remarkable. Head Start children were:

■ 18 percent less likely to be retained a grade level in elementary than the comparison group.

■ 26 percent less likely to need special education assistance than the comparison group.

■ 2.24 and 2.31 times more likely to be proficient in language and writing than the comparison group.

■ Twice as likely to be proficient in math as the comparison group.

The researchers concluded, "The results clearly show that Head Start has a significant impact in the first years of elementary education." While more up-to-date studies reflect improved research methods, they also reflect intense bipartisan work in Congress since 2002 to strengthen Head Start.

The Bush administration increased training for teachers in the areas of language and literacy development, leading to gains like those in the MSU study.

The Head Start Act of 2007 instituted major reforms, including higher degree requirements for teachers. In 2002, only 25 percent of Head Start teachers had at least a bachelor's degree. Today, more than 67 percent have a four-year degree or higher.

The Obama administration increased the quality of Head Start with a system that replaces oversight agencies in programs that don't meet Head Start's high standards. Forty-eight programs nationwide have received new oversight. Throughout Head Start, there is heightened emphasis on school readiness and on research-based tools for measuring teacher-child interactions.

While these represent important strides for over the past decade, we continue to seek higher returns on this important education investment by increasing our full-day programs via increased funding, updating and aligning standards of various early education providers for more effective administration and collaboration, and insuring that our hardworking Head Start teachers and staff are compensated reasonably and at levels that promote retention.

Kentucky's Head Start programs are among the strongest in the nation, as evidenced by the stability of our program oversight.

We urge every policy maker to visit a Head Start program to witness both our dedication to this important work and the dramatic impact we are making in the lives of Kentucky's most vulnerable children. In promoting their futures, we secure Kentucky's future.