It’s Back to School for Head Start Parents

When Head Start was introduced in the 1960s, policymakers envisioned it as a multigenerational program to end poverty. However, most studies of the program and its efficacy have focused solely on outcomes for children, ignoring a crucial piece of the Head Start mission.

For Head Start parents, the program is an opportunity not only to send their children to preschool but also to help them navigate the process of applying for welfare services or finding a job. It can teach them self-empowerment and crucial parenting skills, and, in many cases, parents are even elevated to key decision-making roles within the federal program. The program’s theory of change is that empowered, educated, and employed parents are better equipped to raise their children and break the cycle of poverty.

Maternal education is important for child success, as studies have continued to show. Work from various studies has shown that maternal education is the strongest predictor of achievement inequality in children, but it can also lead to greater cognitive stimulation of children at home. Furthermore, maternal employment is associated with better academic and socio-emotional development in urban, low-income, predominantly minority families. These studies lay the foundation for inquiry into the effectiveness of Head Start at improving parental outcomes. Whether the program succeeds in this endeavor may have a substantial cascading effect on the outcomes of Head Start children.

New research from Terri J. Sabel and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale uses recent data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) to evaluate whether the program has improved parental education and employment. Their paper, titled “The influence of low-income children’s participation in Head Start on their parents’ education and employment,” ultimately finds that Head Start has been successful at improving educational outcomes for parents, though employment outcomes remain unaltered.

The HSIS uses data from randomly selected, oversubscribed—when there are more interested families than available slots—Head Start programs to determine the effects of being offered the opportunity to attend a Head Start program on three- and four-year-olds and their families. This study uses the data collected from the HSIS, including baseline surveys filled out by parents, to measure changes in education and employment status. Researchers measure change in terms of parents moving from one level of education or employment to another. For example, a mother could move from not having a high school diploma to having one or from being unemployed to being employed. The authors also control for a series of background characteristics, including race and home language.

Analysis revealed that, overall, the parents of three-year-olds saw educational gains, while there were no significant gains for parents of four-year-olds and no significant employment gains for parents of either age group. The authors hypothesize that having a child in the program for two years is what leads to noticeable effects only for parents of three-year-olds. When the data was disaggregated, the authors also saw that the program had the greatest effect on parents who started with some college, African American parents, and urban parents.

Based on these findings, the researchers propose that there are three pathways through which parents are experiencing these educational gains. The first is that Head Start gives parents the time to pursue their academic and career interests by providing childcare. The second is that the program provides parents with a network of other parents and staff that can help support success. Finally, the third is that the program gives parents the information and access they need for postsecondary educational opportunities.

The fact that parents benefit from enrolling their children in Head Start is promising. The use of ITT methodology in this study gives us the most representative results for future policy discussion, since it accounts for noncompliance. However, a mixed-methods approach using subsequent semi-structured interviewing of the parents in the study could have allowed the researchers to better elucidate the mechanism behind these gains, rather than just offering hypotheses. Interviews with parents may have also been useful for determining why there are significant results only amongst certain subgroups or only for parents of three-year-olds.

Overall, though, the study still manages to show that Head Start is effective at increasing educational outcomes for some parents. This is an indication that Head Start may be achieving at least some of its multigenerational goals, a fact that should be considered along with student outcomes when debating the merits of the program.


Article Source: Sabol, Terri J., and P. Lindsay Chase‐Lansdale. “The Influence of Low‐Income Children’s Participation in Head Start on Their Parents’ Education and Employment.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 34, no. 1 (2015): 136-161.

Feature Photo: cc/(Lower Columbia College)'
Mikia Manley
Mikia Manley is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in education policy.

Comments are closed.