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Does Head Start Make Parents Less Involved? An Interview with Adam Isen

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Head Start is, at its core, a government program that tries to supplement what parents are doing for their children. It’s a way to level the playing field between kids whose parents read to them every day and take them to music class, and kids whose parents can’t or won’t provide those experiences. But how does Head Start impact parents’ involvement with their children?

One argument holds that Head Start encourages parents to become more involved, through its impact on children’s cognitive ability, programs to increase engagement, a greater emphasis on schooling and other efforts. On the other hand, Head Start may actually decrease parents’ involvement in their children’s education – if the government is taking care of my child’s learning, the reasoning goes, I don’t have to do as much.

We sat down with Adam Isen, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, to get the facts on whether Head Start effectively crowds out parents’ involvement.

The study

Isen, along with University of Pennsylvania professor Alexander Gelber, recently published a paper studying how Head Start changed parents’ investment in their children.

NerdWallet: What’s the premise of your research?

Adam Isen: We wanted to study how government-provided education impacts parent involvement with their children.  Head Start was a good context to study the question because the federal government created a natural experiment by holding a lottery to choose which children get into the program.

We looked at whether Head Start crowds out parental involvement – as has been suggested by previous papers – or whether it increased involvement, which could have implications for parents’ investment decisions and analyses of the program’s efficiency. For example a positive impact on parent involvement – meaning Head Start makes parents more involved – could mean that the overall effect of the program is strengthened, but the direct impact of head start might be overstated.

NW: Head Start increasing involvement is a bad thing?

Adam Isen: No, I would not characterize it as that.  In a world where we don’t know the overall effectiveness of Head Start, it is very likely to be a good thing as it could enhance its effectiveness.  But conditional on knowing the true impact on every outcome we care about – which is also not the exact world we live in – it is perhaps not as desirable, as it suggests we may be overstating the direct effect of the program on children’s outcomes and understating its cost.

At the end of day, on the benefit side, all we really care about is the overall impact of the program, both direct and indirect.  The reason we care is that if parent’s time and resources are being expended, it is a cost that should be taken into account in an analysis of the program.

In a very simplified example, if we value the child’s improvement at, say, $1,000, and there was no effect on parent behavior, then we would assume that the government’s direct and overall value added was $1,000. We’d then compare that to the taxpayer dollars used to fund the program – let’s say $700.  If that were the case, then we ‘d conclude that this is a very productive program.

However, if Head Start increases involvement, then we would also want to consider, among other things, the costs incurred by parents as well.  Of course, increased parent involvement might also make the program more effective, increasing that value added figure.  On the other hand, if Head Start decreases involvement, this can be seen as lowering parents’ time and effort spent on their children.

NW: But that wasn’t the case, according to your findings.

AI: No. Parental involvement – reading, doing math problems, the number of days spent with children by fathers who do not live with their children, and other measures– increased significantly when the children participated in Head Start, particularly in areas that appear to be  investments in their children.

NW: For example?

AI: Parents read to their children more often, and for a longer time – activities that plausibly enhance child development. And we find that even after the children moved on from Head Start, parents continued to have higher levels of involvement with their children. Furthermore, we found that the parents of children randomized into programs that experienced the larger cognitive test score gains were most likely to increase their involvement.   Of course, this is a correlation, and it is not clear what is causing what.

NW: What implications does this have for Head Start as a whole?

AI: In a narrow sense it is an evaluation of one potential impact of the program. Also, research shows that many quality-of-life indicators, like incarceration or graduation rates, are positively influenced by Head Start and more broadly, early child interventions. However, test scores consistently show no lasting gains.

So a big puzzle is, why do we see long-term impacts on outcomes we care about, but no intermediate impacts on test scores?  It’s possible that the tests don’t measure human capital well – or the impacts are on non-cognitive qualities that nevertheless have a lasting impact on a child’s future. While highly speculative, increased parent involvement could be another mechanism for why Head Start may have long terms effects on children without medium term-impacts on test scores.

NW: And what’s next? What should researchers be looking at?

AI: I’d like to see more research on the effect of parental involvement on children’s outcomes, to quantify what they may be.  Related to this, while difficult, it would be great to decompose the effects of Head Start into its different aspects – schooling, parental, nutritional,,etc.. – which could help program administrators focus on the most productive aspects of the programs.   I’d also like to look see more papers examining the effect of better schooling on parental investment behavior outside of Head Start, in traditional primary and secondary schooling programs, for example.

NW: Thanks for your time.