Head Start:

Research Provides Little Information on Impact of Current Program

HEHS-97-59: Published: Apr 15, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 15, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the impact of the current Head Start Program, focusing on what: (1) the studies conducted on current Head Start programs suggest about Head Start's impact; and (2) types of Head Start studies are planned by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

GAO noted that: (1) although an extensive body of literature exists on Head Start, only a small part of this literature is program impact research; (2) this body of research is inadequate for use in drawing conclusions about the impact of the national program in any area in which Head Start provides services such as school readiness or health-related services; (3) not only is the total number of studies small, but most of the studies focus on cognitive outcomes, leaving such areas as nutrition and health-related outcomes almost completely unevaluated; (4) individually, the studies suffer to some extent from methodological and design weaknesses, such as noncomparability of comparison groups, which call into question the usefulness of their individual findings; (5) in addition, no single study used a nationally representative sample so that findings could be generalized to the national program; (6) failing to find impact information in existing research, GAO examined HHS' research plans for Head Start; (7) planned research will focus on new or innovative service delivery strategies and demonstrations but will provide little information on the impact of regular Head Start programs; (8) HHS' planned research includes descriptive studies, studies of program variations, involving new and innovative service delivery strategies and demonstration projects, and studies of program quality; (9) HHS officials, in explaining the agency's research emphasis, stated that early research has proven Head Start's impact; (10) such research, however, conducted over 20 years ago, may no longer apply to today's program because of program changes and changes in the population served; (11) HHS also noted some ethical and methodological difficulties of conducting impact research, especially studies that would produce national estimates of program effect; (12) neither ethical nor methodological issues present an insurmountable deterrent to conducting research on Head Start's impact; and (13) moreover, the size and cost of the program appear to warrant an investment in such research.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fall 2000, HHS contracted with Westat Inc., in collaboration with several other research firms, to plan and perform a nationally representative, longitudinal impact evaluation of the Head Start program. After a pilot study conducted in the Spring of 2001, data collection will begin in fall 2002 with a final report due in December 2006.

    Recommendation: While GAO acknowledges the difficulties of conducting impact studies of programs such as Head Start, research could be done that would allow the Congress and HHS officials to know with more certainty whether the $4-billion federal investment in Head Start is making a difference. For this reason, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should include in HHS' research plan an assessment of the impact of regular Head Start programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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