Head Start & ECEAP – A Wise Investment

In general, quality early childhood education programs are proven to prepare children to succeed in school and reduce later crime and violence.

Studies show that participants in high quality early learning programs like ECEAP and Head Start have better self-esteem, motivation, behavior, academic achievement and are “held back a grade” less often than similar children not in the program. Early Head Start participants score higher on standardized assessments of cognitive development, have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences than similarly disadvantaged peers. Long-term benefits of high quality comprehensive pre-k include not only higher graduation rates, college enrollment and income levels, but also reductions in crime. A large national survey found that children who participated in Head Start were 8.5 percent less likely to be later arrested or charged with a crime than their siblings who attended other preschool programs.

In Washington, more than 30,000 children are eligible for Head Start/ECEAP but are not being served by either Head Start or ECEAP, our state pre-k program. The number for Early Head Start is far higher – less than 10% of eligible children are being served by Early Head Start programs.

ECEAP outcomes evaluation:

In 2014, the state legislature asked the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) to conduct a retrospective outcome analysis of the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), looking back to 2003-4.  The study compared 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade test scores from children who had attended ECEAP to those of similar children who had not.

The results were impressive and sustained.

  • The study concluded thatchildren who attended ECEAP had significantly higher math and reading scores in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades compared to children who did not attend the program”.  And the ‘effect sizes’ are as good or better than some of the top full-day state programs in the country, like Abbott Pre-k in New Jersey, one of the Gates Foundation ‘exemplar programs‘, and twice as good as the average state pre-k program.
  • Return on Investment – just based on these impressive test scores, WSIPP found a return of $13,030 for each ECEAP participant, and that doesn’t fully incorporate two of the major economic benefits of early learning – high school graduation and crime prevention.  Previous WSIPP cost-benefit analysis for ECEAP estimated a $4.20 return for every dollar invested

More information on the ECEAP study is here, and WSIPP is doing further evaluation now.

Cognitive benefits:

Reliable studies have found resoundingly favorable long-term effects on grade repetition, special education, and high school graduation rates for Head Start 1

  • Results from a randomly selected longitudinal study of more than 600 Head Start graduates in San Bernardino County, California, showed that the final grades of Head Start graduates in kindergarten, compared to their non-Head Start peers, were higher in numeracy, language, literacy, social conduct, and physical development. This study also showed that Head Start graduates in kindergarten were absent 4.5 fewer days than their non-Head Start 2
  • Head Start children are “ready to learn,” as by the spring of their kindergarten year, they showed substantial increases in word knowledge, letter recognition, math skills, and writing skills in comparison to national 3
  • Head Start children in the 2000 cohort of the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) demonstrated a greater increase than the typical child in vocabulary and early 4
  • Head Start children are significantly more likely to complete high school and attend college than their siblings who did not attend Head Start. 5
  • FACES data show that HS graduates, by the spring of their kindergarten year, were essentially at national norms in early reading and early writing and were close to meeting national norms in early math and vocabulary 6
  • By the spring of their kindergarten year, HS graduates’ reading assessment scores reached national norms, and their general knowledge assessment scores were close to national 7

Short term economic benefits:

  • Short term savings from reduced special ed and remedial programs in K-12: A very conservative estimate in Washington is that a non special-education student costs the state $65,500 to educate, while a student in special education costs more than twice that -$165,500. This does not include remedial services for students who are behind, but do not meet the criteria for “special education” services. Studies have shown that quality pre-k programs like Head Start and ECEAP can reduce the number of children in Special Education up to 48%.i
  • Montgomery County, Maryland study sees savings up to $10,100 per child per year. A 2010 Montgomery County report found that children that enrolled in a full day Head Start program were 66 percent less likely to need special education services in kindergarten than their peers. Taking the cost of special education into account it is estimated that for each child enrolled in full day Head Start taxpayers saved $10,100 in kindergarten. The Head Start children averaged 3.7 hours of special education services per week in kindergarten, compared to 9.8 hours for students that did not attend full day Head Start.ii
  • Bremerton, WA School District sees savings up to $3,000 per child per year Bremerton School District has taken a systemic approach to improving outcomes in their schools, aligning the curriculum of Head Start and ECEAP with the K-12 system, expanding Head Start services and providing training and curriculum to other pre-school programs in the area. It is estimated that Bremerton saves $3000 per year/per child in reduced high- intensity interventions – special education services, individualized one-on-one instruction, time in remedial reading groups, etc. The Bremerton School District estimates an annual cost savings of up to $800,000 for children who would have needed intensive intervention had they not been involved in a high quality pre-school
  • Crime Prevention Group estimates $240 million/year could be saved by investing in quality early learning.  Fight Crime: Invest in Kids estimated serving all children under 110% of federal poverty level (ECEAP eligibility as of 2020) this could save the state up to $120 million each year in special education costs alone, and an additional $120 million by reducing grade retention. Serving all children who want it would cost the state $600 million, an amount that would be paid back to taxpayers in less than 3 years in K-12 savings.iii

Long term societal and economic benefits:

  • The preliminary results of a randomly selected longitudinal study of more than 600 Head Start graduates in San Bernardino County, California, showed that society receives nearly $9 in benefits for every $1 invested in these Head Start These benefits include increased earnings, employment, and family stability, and decreased welfare dependency, crime costs, grade repetition, and special education. 1
  • Parental involvement contributes to positive growth and upward mobility of Head Start 2
  • As adults, those who attended a quality early childhood program are about three times as likely to be homeowners by age 27 compared to those who did not benefit from the Home ownership is an indicator of successful adaptation to society. 3
  • Head Start children are significantly less likely to have been charged with a crime than their siblings who did not participate in Head 1
  • Young women who have experienced a quality early childhood program are one-third less likely to have out-of-wedlock 2
  • At-risk children not afforded the opportunity to participate in a quality early childhood program are five times more likely to be arrested repeatedly by age 27. 3


i Belfield, Clive R 2006a. Does It Pay to Invest in Preschool for All? Analyzing Return-on-Investment in Three States. New Brunswick, NJ: National Inst. for Early Education Research. http://nieer.org/resources/research/doesitpay.pdfii Zhao, Huafang; Modarresi, Shahpar 2010. Evaluating lasting effects of full-day prekindergarten program on school readiness, academic performance, and special education services. Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.). Office of Shared Accountability, Rockville MD. http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/sharedaccountability/reports/2010/10.04.30%20Pre%20K%20rep ort.pdfiii Fight Crime: Invest in Kids 2010. High-Quality Early Learning: Cutting Crime and Saving Washington Up to $240 Million a Year in Education Costs. http://www.fightcrime.org/sites/default/files/reports/WA%20Early%20Ed%20Special%20Ed%20Brief.pdf