Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Multigenerational Head Start Participation: Reducing Socioeconomic School Readiness Gaps?

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 2:30 PM
Merrick I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Elise Chor, Northwestern University
Childhood poverty is highly predictive of poverty later in life (Wagmiller & Adelman, 2009). Head Start was designed to interrupt this relationship by fostering early learning and social development that would set children born into disadvantage on an even course with their peers (Vinovskis, 2008; Zigler & Muenchow, 1994). However, several datasets (e.g., Head Start Impact Study, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979) show that multiple generations within the same family have participated in the program, indicating that large numbers of participant children have remained poor into adulthood and passed the legacy of poverty on to their own children.

While the children of former participants carry risk factors associated with multigenerational poverty, they also carry what may be an advantage over other low-income children. Fifty years of experimental evidence from early educational interventions have demonstrated the importance of enriching early experiences. As-of-yet unmeasured, long-term Head Start benefits may buffer the next generation against the consequences of early poverty. Whether children from multigenerational participant families are worse or better off than other low-income children remains an open question and the subject of the current study, which, for the first time, describes this group of families representing one-quarter of the current Head Start population and considers the implications of multigenerational participation.

The study capitalizes on data from the 2002 Head Start Impact Study (HSIS), which randomly assigned 4,442 children from a three-year-old cohort and a four-year-old cohort to either receive Head Start services or not participate in the program and tracked their progress through third grade. The current paper shows that mothers who attended Head Start in their youth are worse off along nearly all indicators of socioeconomic status then other mothers of Head Start participant children. Interestingly though, these mothers begin the preschool year with better parenting practices than other mothers, and their children enter Head Start with cognitive test scores on par with other income-eligible children.

Overall Head Start program impacts on a parent-reported Emergent Literacy Scale (PELS), the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), and the Woodcock Johnson-III (WJ-III) Applied Problems, Spelling, and Letter-Word Identification Tests are positive and significant at the end of the preschool year. Most full-sample impacts are driven by children whose mothers attended Head Start though, who receive statistically significantly larger treatment effects on the language- and literacy-related PELS, WJ-III Spelling, and WJ-III Letter-Word Identification Tests. Differential impacts on children’s language and literacy skills likely result from differential impacts on mothers’ literacy-related parenting practices. Full-sample program effects on many of these parenting practices are positive and significant, but mothers who participated in Head Start as children receive even larger boosts to their parenting practices during their child’s participation than mothers without prior program exposure. Findings suggest that enriched early home and educational contexts can help reduce socioeconomic achievement gaps and potentially expand the set of opportunities available to children, even those born into multigenerational poverty.