An interesting study took place starting in 2011 through 2021 with the goal of learning about the early public school experiences of children who had participated in Head Start. Nineteen to twenty-two (depending on the year) Minnesota Head Start programs across the state participated and collected data on their four year old children over this time period. The approach was to match the Head Start children’s data with their K-5 grade-level student data. The K-5 data was from the Minnesota Automated Reporting Student System (MARSS)MARSS (an individual student record system) is the Minnesota Department of Education’s primary reporting system for student data. Please, note tribal and migrant programs chose to not participate in this study. 

Study results 

The study results were characterized as follows: 

  • Outcomes related to the years a child participated in Head Start
  • Outcomes related to child’s attendance in Head Start 
  • Outcomes related to children with special needs participating in Head Start 

Before we look at the study outcomes, we need to define a couple of terms that are used. An Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is a plan or program developed to ensure a child with a disability (as identified under the law) that is attending a K-12 educational institution receives specialized instruction and related services. English-language learners (ELL) are students who are actively learning the English language in addition to their native language 

First, let’s look at the outcomes related to children that participated in Head Start for two or more years. Students utilizing IEPsracially diverse students, and students enrolled in ELL services had better school outcomes after attending Head Start. Children with two or more years in Head Start performed higher on third grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) math or reading exams when compared to their non-Head Start peers. In general, Head Start children with longer participation outperformed non-Head Start peers. Children who are young for their grade-level appeared to receive greater benefit from second year of Head Start participation.  

Secondly, the general outcomes of children that regularly attended Head Start is compelling. Head Start students had higher school attendance than non-Head Start peers in similar school environmentsHead Start students with 90% attendance scored higher than non-Head Start students on third grade MCA math exams 

When comparing Head Start students with high attendance to other Head Start students, the Head Start students with higher attendance (at Head Start) continued to have better school attendance in their early school years. The effect was even larger for Head Start students with high attendance who were enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. 

The third set of outcomes are related to special services requirementsThe study found that kindergarten students who were in Head Start and were in a distinct group, such as special education, ELL, or homeless had little overlap between the groupsSpecial education eligibility was lower for Head Start children than school peers through fourth gradeOf all identified students using IEPs and participating in Head Start, only 65% were still using an IEP by third grade. 

Study implications 

What conclusions or implications can be drawn from the results of this study? The authors of the study recommend the state of Minnesota utilize the Birth to Five approach for both an Early Head Start Centers and home-based programs for children age 0-5. ​According to the Minnesota Department of Education web site “Minnesota’s Preschool Development Birth through Five grant works to remove barriers so families with young children can access life-changing early childhood programs. In partnership with the Minnesota Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, along with the Children’s Cabinet, the grant aims to align education and care systems across the state. By investing in early childhood now, means stronger communities in the future.” 

Also, the authors of the study recommend making trauma informed practices and mental health supports central part of preparing children for learning and school environments.  And rethinking how referrals are made to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C by exploring parental concerns and engaging the parents in discussions 

The authors also make some recommendations for Head Start itself, recommendations that can be applicable to any early childhood education or childcare center. Head Start should strive for at least two years of Head Start for three and four year old children and consider the child’s developmental age as part of the placement processHead Start should strengthen Dual Language Learning for children and families and make attendance at Head Start a critical focus for parents.  

Of course, parental involvement and commitment to an infant’s five year goalsetting is critical. Focus on the child is essential, likewise improving family stability and building the family’s capacity for school readiness is fundamental to the child’s development. One way to set the right tone for the child is for the parents to establish routines where they take on the role as the child’s first teacher. 

Additional Information

Go to the following web addresses to explore key topics covered in this blog post: