Panel Paper: Head Start and Children's School Readiness: Variations By Family and Neighborhood Poverty

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 10:35 AM
Jemez (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Taryn Morrissey and Katie Vinopal, American University
The experience of family poverty during childhood, particularly during early childhood, has substantial, negative impacts on children’s development, including their readiness for kindergarten (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Neighborhood-level poverty also negatively impacts children’s development. Children who grow up in areas of concentrated poverty, which tend to have few high-quality early learning opportunities and poor-quality K-12 schools, disproportionately experience short- and long-term adverse outcomes (Duncan & Murnane, 2011; Wodtke, Harding, & Elwert, 2011). A growing body of research suggests that poor children in poor neighborhoods are more disadvantaged, compared to poor peers in lower-poverty neighborhoods (Morrissey et al., 2013).

Early learning experiences, such as Head Start (HS), have been shown to improve poor children’s school readiness (Garces & Currie, 2002; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012), and evidence suggests that the most disadvantaged children show the largest benefits (Bitler, Hoynes, & Domina, 2013). It is possible that poor children living in areas of concentrated disadvantage disproportionately benefit from HS attendance, compared to poor children in more advantaged neighborhoods. However, whether early learning experiences have differential effects on children’s school readiness based on the neighborhood context remains unexplored.

This study examines the interactive effects of neighborhood poverty and HS attendance on children’s school readiness. We link data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) to corresponding contextual data from the American Community Survey (ACS) using children’s residential zip codes and focus on a subsample of children who attended either HS or center care during their preschool year (N = 3,750). Children’s reading and math scores at Kindergarten serve as the dependent variable, and we control for a rich set of child, parental, and household characteristics.

We define neighborhood poverty as living in a zip code with a poverty rate of 20% or greater. Using this definition of concentrated poverty, about 26% of children in the ECLS-B who attended HS or center care during the preschool wave lived in high-poverty neighborhoods. Children living in households below the poverty level in high-poverty zip codes were more likely be ethnic or racial minority, less likely to live in a two-parent household, less likely to have college-educated parents, and averaged lower reading and math scores than their peers.

Preliminary OLS regression models (clustered by zip code) indicate that children in high-poverty neighborhoods average lower math scores than those in low-poverty neighborhoods, and children who attended Head Start average lower reading scores than their peers who attended center-based care. However, there were no significant interactions between Head Start attendance and neighborhood poverty. Future analyses will test different specifications of neighborhood poverty (e.g., 30% or more poor at the zip code level), and will employ multilevel modeling and propensity score matching to further limit omitted variable bias. Given the importance of school readiness in predicting later academic outcomes, understanding the differential impacts of Head Start by neighborhood poverty is important for identifying strategies for policy intervention.