Why we need Head Start. It’s not why you think.

June 30, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • An increasing number of children are enrolled either in the national Head Start program or in a state-based pre-K program.
  • State programs have had mixed effects, some positive and some negative.
  • A new Brookings study suggests that the typical state program could increase lifetime earnings by about $16,000.
  • The national Head Start program, in contrast, has had disappointing results for today’s children with little or no effect on academic or behavioral skills in elementary school.
  • But Head Start remains a valuable source of high-quality childcare for working parents with low incomes.

The number of studies of pre-K could fill an entire book, but it wouldn’t have a very satisfying conclusion. Some studies have found that providing low-income children with early education produces stunning results, but these studies were conducted decades ago when mothers were far less educated, out of home care was less common, safety net programs were stingier, families were larger, and childbearing started at an earlier age, often in adolescence. More recent evidence, such as the evaluation of the national Head Start program, have not shown that children benefit from the program. As for the increasing share of children enrolled in state or district-sponsored programs such as public pre-K, their success is all over the map. One study of a Boston program found that enrolled children were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. Another study of a Tennessee program found negative results. Using a more typical result from state-based programs, we recently provided new estimates of the long-term benefits of a state program and show that it could increase lifetime earnings by about $16,000.

So what’s a parent or policymaker to think? What’s the bottom line? It’s actually quite simple. The main reason we need more preschool is because, even if it doesn’t clearly benefit child development, it provides high-quality childcare for low-income working parents. That care enables the parents of three- and four-year olds to work, knowing that their children are in a safe and stimulating environment.

But, you might ask, why do these parents need to work? Couldn’t they stay home and take care of their own children? Unfortunately, that’s no longer a realistic option for most families. Among married parents, two-thirds of the mothers of 3- to 5-year-olds are in the labor force along with three-quarters of their nonmarried counterparts.

Preschool should be thought of as a good quality childcare option. If it also improves children’s later life prospects, that’s great. And it may. We just shouldn’t count on it.

Another question that might be raised is about costs. Isn’t preschool more expensive than childcare? Yes, but only because we continue to pay childcare workers a pittance ($14.22 an hour in 2022), which is a problem in itself with real consequences for children. A program in Quebec that tried to make childcare available cheaply actually had negative effects on children’s later behavior, health, and likelihood of being involved in crime.

Put differently, and most simply, preschool should be thought of as a good quality childcare option. If it also improves children’s later life prospects, that’s great. And it may. We just shouldn’t count on it.

Critics of this argument point to earlier research showing that programs like Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti Michigan or Abecedarian in North Carolina produced dramatic gains in children’s later success in school and in the labor force, reduced crime, and more than paid for themselves. But those programs were high quality, intensive efforts that are not realistically scalable to all or even most three and four-year-olds.  Furthermore, these earlier studies were based on follow up data for children born decades ago who lacked the kinds of home environments and alternative opportunities that now exist.

I’m not arguing that an intensive, very high-quality preschool experience couldn’t help children later in life. But given a choice between investing in such a program and providing more resources to public schools to enhance learning in the early or middle grades, I’d vote for the latter. Rucker Johnson and Kirabo Jackson have shown that what happens in those later grades is critical to the impact of the Head Start program. If Head Start isn’t followed up with high-quality instruction in the early grades, we may be wasting scarce resources. Some Head Start children will be retaught in kindergarten or first grade what they learned earlier while others will experience an immediate boost in school readiness at the end of Head Start only to find those gains fade for lack of adequate follow up in grades one through three.

$14.22 Average hourly pay for childcare workers in 2022

I believe there is an emerging consensus about these issues within the expert community, based on my own review of the research and the discussion that occurred at a private Brookings conference I organized in May (highlights of the discussion are summarized here).

For those who disagree, a constructive response would be to fund some research on what happens to the children enrolled in Head Start later in their academic careers. So far, the evidence on Head Start’s success isn’t encouraging.

In the meantime, many American families are finding it extremely difficult to find decent and affordable childcare for their toddlers.  While we are waiting for more research to be done, let’s at least provide them with some relief. And let’s also recognize that paying childcare workers minimum wages is not reasonable if we care about them and the children in their care.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The Brookings Institution is financed through the support of a diverse array of foundations, corporations, governments, individuals, as well as an endowment. A list of donors can be found in our annual reports published online here. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are solely those of its author(s) and are not influenced by any donation.