Today, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Department of Health and Human Services, released the “Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study Final Report.”  Why would ACF choose to release an important report on the Friday before Christmas?  Could it have something to do with the fact that researchers found that Head Start had almost no lasting effects on participating children?

It was a rigorous study, to say the least.

The Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 84 grantee/delegate agencies and included nearly 5,000 newly entering, eligible 3- and 4-year-old children who were randomly assigned to either: (1) a Head Start group that had access to Head Start program services or (2) a control group that did not have access to Head Start, but could enroll in other early childhood programs or non-Head Start services selected by their parents. Data collection began in fall 2002 and continued through 2008, following children from program application through the spring of their 3rd grade year.

Researchers examined several developmental areas, including measures of cognitive, social-emotional, language and literacy, and health outcomes.  They found that Head Start improved the preschool experience of participating children, but the program had “few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.”  Researchers concluded,

[T]here was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.

This is the so-called “fade out effect.” Proponents of large-scale early childhood programs argue that the “fade out effect” is a myth perpetuated by heartless skeptics.