For decades, policymakers and researchers have focused on the question of whether publicly funded preschool, specifically Head Start, makes a difference. But new research by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Luke Miratrix, along with colleagues Todd Grindal, Lindsay Page, and Avi Feller, broadens the perspective to consider the alternatives: What happens to the children who attend a center-based program (like Head Start), and what happens to children who don’t?
In a randomized study, the researchers compared children with access to publicly funded preschool programs like Head Start to similar children who didn’t attend a center-based preschool program. Then they separated the children into two alternative groups — those who would still attend a center-based preschool program, even if not Head Start, and those who would not attend a center-based program at all, and who would instead receive home-based care. As Miratrix explains, they were interested in seeing how these different groups of children performed.
What they found confirmed the long-understood benefits of center-based preschool — whether Head Start or other similar programs — especially as compared to home-based care. Examining children’s vocabulary skills, the study found strongly positive effects on children enrolled in Head Start versus those who would otherwise stay at home. The study found no evidence that Head Start offers any additional benefits in improved vocabulary over other center-based preschools, suggesting that policy conversations should focus more on moving children from home-based care into formal care, rather than on moving children from one preschool program to another.
The bottom line is that “these results suggest that getting kids into center-based care is a good idea,” Miratrix says. “It is quite possible that Head Start centers are no better than other centers, but we found that center-based care is superior to home-based care for many children.”
So how can more children benefit? The study raises troubling questions about the options available to families without access to publicly funded preschool. While some families still may be able to afford a private preschool program, or would find ways for their children to engage in the enriching, stimulating activities that preschools offer, other families find their options limited to home-based care.
The takeaway, the researchers suggest, is the need for more research on improving access to center-based programs, especially for low-income families, and new efforts to improve the quality of early education in all realms.
“We should work to improve the quality of home-based care,” Grindal adds. “For many parents, such as those who work outside of the home on weekends or during nonstandard hours, center-based care is just not an option. Other parents may prefer home-based settings for their children because they provide opportunities for instruction in their home language. These children also need to have access to the types of stimulating interactions that are more often provided in center-based settings.”
This new research should also put to rest any lingering debates over whether publicly funded preschool works, the researchers add, and allow the conversation to shift, finally, to how every child can benefit.
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