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The role of program quality in determining Head Start's impact on child development

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The Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) has shown that having access to Head Start improves children's preschool experiences and school readiness in certain areas, though few of those advantages persisting through third grade (Puma et al., 2012). Scholars and practitioners alike have wondered whether impacts might be larger or more persistent for children who participate in high quality Head Start as opposed to lower quality Head Start. In response, this report examines the vital policy question: To what extent does variation in the quality of children's Head Start experiences affect children's development? The HSIS experimental evaluation, which involved a nationally representative sample and included rich data at baseline, about programs and across several years of follow-up, provides an ideal source for analyzing the answer to this question. Further informed by experts in the field, this report uses measures of quality based on the ECERS, Arnett, and teacher reports to capture three distinct dimensions of the Head Start setting: (1) "resources," which are the physical characteristics available in the program; (2) the "interactions" between teacher and child; and (3) children's "exposure" to academic activities in the classroom. Slightly less than three-fourths of the Head Start children in the study were in high quality classrooms for the resources and interactions quality measures, while on the exposure to academic activities measure, about one-fourth of the Head Start children were in high quality classrooms. Prior research posits that richer resources and more favorable interactions should be associated with better cognitive and social outcomes. The relationship of exposure to academic activities among children of this age is less clear, with some reason to think that too much such exposure may not necessarily benefit children. We find little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start using the available quality measures from the study across two age cohorts, three quality dimensions, five outcomes, and several years. The one exception is that for 3-year-old program entrants low exposure quality, defined as less exposure to academic activities during Head Start participation, produces better behavioral impacts in the short-run than more exposure to academic activities. Even so, there is no indication that either high quality Head Start or low quality Head Start in any dimension leads to program impacts lasting into third grade. The analysis of quality makes use of the HSIS experimental evaluation design to capitalize on the fact that children were randomized into treatment and control groups, allowing any predicted quality subgroup of the treatment group to be matched to its counterpart in the control group. The analytic approach we take eliminates plausible rival explanations for observed impacts, an approach we advocate for future research that is otherwise challenged by potential selection bias on post-random assignment mediating factors, such as quality. (author abstract)
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Reports & Papers
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United States

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