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Long-term Benefits of Head Start

Something I hear often from opponents of Head Start or even just people who aren’t familiar with Head Start or Early Head Start is that the programs don’t work. If you haven’t met Head Start alumni, it’s easy to take someone else’s word for it, but as part of this community I’ve always found comments about Head Start having no effect frustrating, because I see amazing results everywhere I go.

One of our alumni whose story is impressive–but not unique–is Chuck Mills. A business owner and former pilot of Marine One (the President’s helicopter), he spoke before Congress last year about how he and his five brothers and sisters were raised by a single mother in a poor and violent community. He and one of his sisters attended Head Start and as adults became very successful professionally. Their siblings who were not able to attend Head Start led lives of struggle and addiction. At the end of his moving testimony, Chuck told the committee, “I attribute much of who I am to the Head Start program and my life mission to be the father to my children that I never had in part is a result of the life‐lessons I learned while in Head Start.”

When I hear people say Head Start doesn’t work, I think of Chuck Mills and I wonder what it will take to explain that while one study among many others shows that test score gains decrease over time for Head Start students, that doesn’t mean the program has not had lasting benefits. With that on my mind, I was fascinated to read about a study in the New York Times last week and made a surprising parallel to Head Start. The study was conducted by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, who investigated how good teachers affect their students in the long-term.

Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff examined the students of excellent, average, and poor teachers and looked at whether they went to college, how old they were when they had children, and where they ended up living as adults. Their research found that while test score gains did fade a few years after students left an excellent teacher’s classroom, they did better in life than those with average or poor teachers. Those who had excellent teachers were less likely to be teen parents and more likely to go to college and earn higher salaries.

The benefits of this study of teachers reflect the same kinds of outcomes we see in Chuck Mill’s story. Other Head Start research has shown that fade out of test scores gains happen more slowly that documented by the Impact Study[1] and, like the New York Times piece suggests, the most dramatic benefits of early childhood interventions reveal themselves later in life.

One 2009 article by David Deming of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has some very powerful data about the long-term outcomes of Head Start participation.[2] Comparing Head Start children to their siblings who did not attend the program or any preschool, Deming looked at how both groups did as adults. While he did find test score fade-out over time, in the long-term Deming showed Head Start participation closed the bottom to median income gap by a third and the racial achievement gap by three quarters. Those who had attended Head Start were more likely to graduate high school, attend some college, and lead healthy lifestyles.

The research on the effect of good teachers and that of Head Start converge on one idea: regardless of test scores, good teaching in a nurturing environment changes children’s lifetime trajectories. Chuck Mills is a testament to this idea, and he is not alone. In the face of this truth, it is more important than ever that we offer quality learning experiences to all children, both in their early years of development and through their school careers.

~Yasmina Vinci, NHSA Executive Director



  1. ^ Greenberg, M. & Domitrovich, C. (2011). The Harrisburg Preschool Program Evaluation: Final Report. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, Prevention Research Center.
  2. ^ Deming, David (2009). Early Childhood Intervention and Life-Cycle Skill Development: Evidence from Head Start. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(3), 111–134.