Head Start is the oldest, largest, and most widely known early intervention program for young children and families living in poverty. Created in 1965 as an 8-week summer program, it soon grew to a full-year preschool program. Head Start center and home-based programs reside in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories, and serve more than 900,000 young children and their families. The principal components of Head Start include health care, education, nutrition, social services, parental involvement, and employment and career development. The primary goal is to foster healthy development (cognitive, social, and emotional) in low-income children.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty” in his State of the Union Address and named Sargent Shriver head of the War on Poverty program. Under Shriver’s direction, the Office of Economic Opportunity formed a Head Start Planning Committee composed of 13 scientists, including pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, educators, and social workers. Because of the diverse backgrounds represented on the Planning Committee, the focus of Head Start went beyond education to include other aspects of early childhood development. The Committee proposed seven major goals for the preschool program: (1) improving children’s physical health and physical abilities; (2) facilitating the emotional and social development of children by encouraging self-confidence, spontaneity, curiosity, and self-discipline; (3) training children’s mental processes and skills with particular attention to conceptual and verbal abilities; (4) establishing patterns and expectations of success that foster confidence for future learning efforts; (5) expanding children’s capacity to relate positively to family members and others while also strengthening the family’s ability to relate positively to their children and their children’s limitations; (6) developing in children and in families a responsible attitude toward society, and fostering constructive opportunities for society to work together with disadvantaged families in solving their problems; and (7) increasing the sense of dignity and self-worth of children and families. In these ways, Head Start aimed to break the “cycle of poverty” by providing a comprehensive program that targeted the cognitive, emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs of low-income children.
In 1965, the Office of Economic Opportunity launched Head Start as an 8-week summer program in more than 2,500 communities, serving more than half a million children younger than 7 years of age. Head Start transitioned from a vision to a functioning program in just a few months. A year later, Head Start expanded to a full-year program serving 350,000 children at 10,000 child care centers. In this brief time, more than 30,000 teachers were trained, and Head Start was enthusiastically welcomed by parents, community leaders, and educational and child development specialists across the nation. Described succinctly in this way, the program might sound like a Utopian intervention, which it clearly was not. In many programs, most of the teachers and other employees were parents of Head Start children who were themselves undereducated and underqualified for the program responsibilities that they assumed. There were then, and remain today, many financial, logistical, and technical challenges to the viability of the program, but a start had been made.
Head Start has undergone many changes under the leadership of Dr. Julius B. Richmond, a prominent pediatrician who served as the first director of Head Start, and Dr. Edward F. Zigler, a distinguished academic psychologist from Yale who was appointed as the first director of the Office of Child Development. In 1969, Head Start was transferred from the Office of Economic Opportunity to the Office of Child Development in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later renamed the Department of Health and Human Services). Amendments to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1969 allowed participation in Head Start to children from more affluent families if they paid for those services, but that system was dismantled after 1 year owing to problems in its implementation. In 1972, another amendment was made to the Economic Opportunity Act calling for expansion of Head Start program opportunities to handicapped children. The legislation mandated that handicapped children constitute at least 10% of the national Head Start enrollment. A year later, program directors created the National Head Start Association to serve as a lobbying agency for Head Start. In 1974, a Congressional Act reallocated Head Start funding priorities to encourage research, demonstration and pilot projects, and ongoing evaluations of Head Start programs.
In 1975, Head Start Program Performance Standards were issued. Recognizing the uneven quality of programs nationwide, Dr. Zigler feared that the benefits of high-quality Head Start programs would be “washed out” by their underperforming counterparts. In the same year, the Child Development Associate program started offering training and credentialing to child care workers, and more than 50,000 Head Start employees have earned their associate’s degrees since 1975. In 1994, Congress passed legislation signed by President Clinton that required the Head Start Program Performance Standards to be revised and published in 1996. In 1998, the Head Start Reauthorization Act mandated expansion of Head Start to a full-day, full year service. To date, Head Start has served more than 22 million children and their families.
Today Head Start is housed in the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. It is locally administered by community-based nonprofit organizations and school systems in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories. Head Start serves urban and rural children and families from many different ethnic backgrounds. In the year 2003, there were more than 900,000 children enrolled in Head Start, with 19,200 centers in operation, although even today, not all 3-year-olds can be accommodated who wish to enroll. (Four-year-olds are usually given preference for enrollment because 3-year-olds will still have another opportunity when they are a year older.) Of the children served currently by Head Start, 28% are white, 32% are African American, 31% are Latino, and about 9% are Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American. At least 90% of Head Start children must come from families with incomes at or below the federal poverty line, which currently allows about $30,000 of income for a family of four. The primary exception to the poverty rule is that the 10% of children who are handicapped may come from more affluent families. Some Head Start programs have difficulty complying with the 10% guideline because many handicapped children cannot reliably be identified before 5 years of age, but the program nationally has been successful in identifying and serving preschoolers with special needs, and 12.5% of the national enrollment in 2003 consisted of children with disabilities.
Head Start programs comprise the following main components: health care, education, nutrition, social services, parental involvement, employment, and career development. Health care provides immunizations, medical and dental checkups, eyesight tests, and mental health services. The Head Start founders believed that unhealthy children have difficulty performing in school; therefore, making health care a primary objective should equip children better to handle the later challenges at school. Educational curricula are designed to provide important learning experiences that low-income children might not otherwise receive; such provisions foster intellectual, social, and emotional growth.
Between 1997 and 2000, the Families and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) examined the quality of Head Start classrooms using measures of quality consistent with the Head Start Program Performance Standards. More than 70% of classrooms studied scored in the “good” or “excellent” range, and very few in the “minimal” range. Most Head Start teachers used the Creative Curriculum by Teaching Strategies program or the High/Scope curriculum, but 41% used another curriculum. Most teachers liked their curriculum for a variety of reasons, including that it covered multiple domains, was easy to use and adapt, involved parents, allowed room for teacher creativity, and provided adequate learning materials.
Besides educational resources, Head Start provides or arranges for social services that might be needed, including community outreach, referrals to other agencies, family needs assessments, recruitment and enrollment of children, and emergency assistance and crisis intervention. A critical objective of Head Start is to encourage parent participation, such as assisting teachers and social workers as paraprofessionals, serving on policy councils and committees, and attending classes and workshops on child development. In 2003, 28% of program staff members were parents of current or former Head Start children, and more than 880,000 parents volunteered in their local Head Start programs. These figures underline a common misperception: Head Start is not solely a program for children; it is a program for families as well. Through their involvement, it is intended that parents learn from Head Start how to teach, train, and nurture their own children. The last Head Start objective is to foster employment and career development. Most staff members are recruited locally and are offered training and credentialing opportunities, in hopes of improving child care quality and career prospects through the additional training. The FACES study found that nearly 60% of teachers received training in their curriculum from their own programs, 14% received this “technical assistance” from the developers of the curricula, 10% from a Head Start Quality Improvement Center, and the remainder from other sources.
About 1.4 million people volunteer their time to Head Start programs and projects. Volunteers include parents and grandparents of Head Start children, high school and college students, senior citizens, and homemakers. Volunteer opportunities range from being a front desk receptionist, to serving as a classroom aide, to assisting with special events.
Beyond the center-based Head Start program, several program extensions have evolved through the years since its inception. Some prospered and continue to operate, whereas others fell by the wayside, but many of the features of Head Start that have proved to be valuable and effective started out as experimental ventures by teachers, parents, or program directors.
The first offshoot of Head Start, Project Follow Through, was implemented in 1967 by the Department of Education. The purpose of this program was to extend the Head Start vision into elementary schools, thus creating a more gradual transition into public education. Follow Through began as a pilot program in 40 school districts and was expanded to full-scale within 1 year. Unfortunately, the program did not receive the funding necessary to implement the comprehensive Head Start curriculum; thus, no universal model of Follow Through was adopted. The program continued to operate into the 1990s, but only as an experimental program in newly formed elementary schools.
Health Start, a summer medical screening program for impoverished children, was introduced in 1970. In addition to general medical screening, children received referrals, dental care, and follow-ups throughout the year. This program was in operation for 2 years but was discontinued for lack of success. Three years later, Home Start was initiated, providing home-based Head Start services by paraprofessionals, the rationale being that Head Start skills could be brought home and delivered to parents and other siblings. This program was particularly well received in rural areas where great distances to child care centers hindered families’ participation. There are now more than 500 Home Start sites in operation, and more than 47,000 children have participated in Home Start services.
In 1991, the Head Start Transition Project received funding to partner Head Start with elementary schools to provide services in four different areas: (1) developmentally appropriate and continuous Head Start curriculum, (2) health services, (3) facilitation of parental involvement, and (4) social services to participating families. This program operated in 32 sites. Although this program is no longer active, the effort to coordinate transitional support to Head Start children is still a priority.
In 1995, the first Early Head Start grants were awarded to provide services for pregnant women and children birth to age 3. Four years later, Early Head Start served about 45,000 children through such program services as comprehensive early child development, health, and family support in both home and center-based care. Thus far, the research evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. shows that Early Head Start is improving cognitive, language, and social-emotional development in the participants at age 3, and increasing parental involvement.
Because Head Start is a nationally recognized, federally funded preschool program, there are plentiful reasons to study the magnitude of its effects on the children and families it serves. Over the years, many notable studies have been undertaken. The first studies evaluating the efficacy of Head Start primarily focused on “graduates” between first and third grade. The Westinghouse National Evaluation Study in 1965 matched former Head Start participants in grades 1 through 3 with classmates from similar family backgrounds. This was a quasi-experimental study that tested the academic achievement scores of these children. Two investigations with similar designs and findings include the Educational Testing Service (ETS) Longitudinal Study in 1969 to 1971 and the New Haven Head Start Study, 1968 to 1969. Finally, the National Longitudinal Survey Child-Mother (NLSCM) conducted between 1979 and 1989 compared language test scores of children who attended Head Start against those of their siblings who did not attend.
Regarding long-term effects, the general consensus of these studies was that Head Start graduates had higher achievement test scores than non–Head Start participants in grade 1, but that this difference was no longer significant in grades 2 and 3. This phenomenon has been termed the fade-out effect, whereby the cognitive benefits of Head Start are evident immediately but diminish gradually within 1 or 2 years. The NLSCM study found the fade-out effect among African American and white children, but actually found a “fade-in” effect for Latino children. It appeared that, for Latino children, having attended Head Start produced a progressively beneficial effect on academic achievement.
Despite the immediate benefits associated with Head Start, the fade-out effect brought into question the value of the program. In 1985, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a contract to synthesize the results of 210 Head Start research studies. The findings confirmed the fade-out effect, concluding that immediate cognitive gains were significant, but diminished within 2 years after exiting the program, in the absence of intervention beyond preschool.
Simultaneously, Head Start advocates began questioning the legitimacy and validity of the research being conducted. For instance, the Westinghouse National Evaluation Study was conducted 3 years after Head Start was initiated; thus, the non–Head Start subjects were assigned to the control group after the fact. Typically, an experimental study assigns participants to each group randomly in advance, to avoid bias in interpreting the results. Consequently, it is difficult to conclusively attribute any effects—favorable or otherwise— solely to the Westinghouse intervention. Second, the instruments used to measure the social competence outcomes were not validated ahead of time. Unlike the well-standardized cognitive competence measures, the measures of attitude or emotion were developed informally by the evaluators of the program, which elicited substantial criticism from experts. The research findings also brought into question whether the outcomes measured could truly determine the efficacy of intervention programs. Ultimately, certain outcomes may be more useful in shaping public policy (e.g., cognitive and social competence), and other outcomes may provide more useful feedback for curriculum improvements, medical and dental care, and parental involvement. It is worth noting that the bill for the Head Start program—now approximating $7 billion annually— must be paid through legislative action, an intensely political enterprise.
Given the limitations of previous research, Head Start supporters began looking to other program evaluations. Between 1984 and 1993, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project conducted follow-ups of its participants and nonparticipants at ages 19 and 27. Regardless of the outcomes in the elementary school years, the follow-up results indicated that the preschool participants showed increased employment and graduation rates, less dependence on public services, and reduced crime and arrest rates, when compared with nonparticipants. These significant findings were dubbed the sleeper effect, meaning that the effects of the preschool program became evident later in the participants’ lives, most prominently in the areas of social behavior, self-sufficiency, and moral conduct.
Owing in large part to the notoriety of the Perry Preschool Study, the Long-Term Benefits of Head Start study (LTBHS) was initiated in 1987 and 1988. In this study, former Head Start children were followed up 17 years after participation in the program and compared with non–Head Start subjects of the same age in Colorado and Florida. Compared with the nonparticipants, Head Start graduates achieved significantly higher elementary school grades and showed a trend toward higher rates of general equivalency diploma (GED) or high school completion, employment, and enrollment in school. However, there were no significant improvements regarding teen pregnancies, use of public assistance, or rates of crime and arrests.
A subset of the Florida Head Start sample received a model Head Start program based on child development theory, known as the High/Scope preschool model. This subset of Head Start graduates was compared with the Head Start graduates who received the regular curriculum, and significant improvements were found regarding grades in elementary, middle, and high school, and in lower crime and arrest rates. Although no significant improvements were found in rates of GED or high school completion, employment, enrollment in school, or teen pregnancies, the significant findings did, to some degree, replicate the Perry Preschool finding that preschool intervention has lasting effects beyond the commonly measured domains of cognitive and social competence in early childhood.
Several research studies were initiated to evaluate programs developed as offshoots of Head Start. In 1968, a study of program effectiveness for Project Follow Through found only moderate effects on the children’s academic achievement. However, these results were not surprising, given the haste and disorganization in launching the program and the lack of curriculum consistency across sites. Home Start was evaluated after its inception in 1972, and the results indicated that the program was equally effective in all areas, except that it did not provide the same quality of health services as center-based Head Start. Finally, the evaluation of the Head Start Transition Project determined that participating children were able to reach national norms in most academic areas.
Social And Policy Implications Of Evaluation Findings
Since its inception, Head Start has received strong financial support from the federal government. The congressional appropriation increased dramatically from $96.4 million in fiscal year 1965 to $349 million in 1967, owing to the early enthusiasm for the program. However, the ensuing negative evaluation reports led Congress to decrease the appropriation to $325 million in 1970. At that time, the Office of Management and Budget floated a plan that would have phased out Head Start over a 3-year budget cycle. This phase-out plan never took place, owing to protests from parents and other advocates who supported Dr. Zigler’s arguments. He acknowledged that, although it is straightforward to base policy decisions around easily measurable effects like achievement scores, the importance of other Head Start objectives may be overlooked, such as improved health, promotion of social skills and moral conduct, and reduction in arrest rates and crime. Not only did the phase-out plan not take place, but also, in 1971, Congress appropriated $35 million more than the previous year’s allocation.
Between 1977 and 1983, the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) published a series of reports reviewing the long-term effects of 11 preschool interventions, including Head Start. CLS has been pivotal in publicizing the importance of early childhood interventions and in drawing outside support. The perspective that emerged from those reports drew on the plausible argument that the long-term effects of early childhood interventions do not stand alone. Rather, these interventions have an interactive relationship with their social context and with the families and educational experiences surrounding the children. During the Carter administration, from 1977 to 1981, the annual appropriation for Head Start nearly doubled, and in 1984, the Head Start budget exceeded $1 billion dollars. The total appropriation for Head Start in fiscal year 1995 was $3.5 billion; it rose to $5.3 billion in FY2000; and it reached $6.8 billion in FY2004.
Most of the congressional appropriation for Head Start is awarded to public or private nonprofit agencies to fund local Head Start projects. Grants are awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services regional offices, except for the American Indian and Migrant programs, which are administered in Washington, D.C. The remaining funds are used for training, technical assistance, research, demonstrations, and program evaluation.
In addition to policies affecting Head Start, the following two examples illustrate the profound effect that Head Start has had on policy decisions throughout its existence. In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act was created to provide access to quality child care for all working mothers. Low-income mothers would receive the service for free, whereas other families would pay for the service on a sliding scale. Simultaneously, the Nixon administration was working on its welfare reform package known as the Family Assistance Plan. The plan was designed to provide women with job training and child care in order to reduce their dependence on welfare. The next step in support of the Comprehensive Child Development Act and the Family Assistance Plan was to specify what would be considered quality child care. Dr. Zigler and his staff drafted a set of federal standards based on their experience with Head Start, and Secretary Elliot Richardson approved those standards. Although the two bills failed to pass, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) eventually adopted the standards proposed by Dr. Zigler in its system for evaluating and credentialing child care programs across the country. NAEYC is still in existence and continues to influence child care standards across the nation.
Head Start has remained active for almost 40 years and receives significant funding from both federal and state sources. This investment in Head Start is founded on the complementary relationship between program evaluation results and public policy. In order for Head Start to survive in the future, this relationship must be nurtured, to ensure that current research appropriately drives future policy decisions. In 1998, Congress authorized the first national evaluation of Head Start (the National Reporting System) since the Westinghouse study, contracting the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) to direct the research.
The National Reporting System (NRS) is grounded in President Bush’s Good Start, Grow Smart, Early Childhood Initiative. It includes provisions in the Head Start Act to create a new national database that monitors the progress of 4and 5-year-old Head Start children in specific areas of child development. Programs will administer this NRS assessment to more than 525,000 children (all 4and 5-year-olds) at the beginning and end of the program year, to assess the skills with which they enter Head Start, their levels of achievement when they leave Head Start, and the progress they have made during the year. The assessment information collected through the NRS will be used to strengthen Head Start program effectiveness. This assessment will monitor the following five learning indicators, as mandated by Congress in the Head Start Act of 1998: (1) understanding and using language to communicate for various purposes; (2) using increasingly complex and varied vocabulary; (3) in the case of children whose native language is not English, progressing toward acquisition and mastery of the English language; (4) identifying at least 10 letters of the alphabet; and (5) awareness of numbers. To counter the skepticism generated by the flaws in the Westinghouse study, the NRS evaluation has employed an experimental design using random group assignment and validated performance measures.
Although it is still early to evaluate the NRS, it is not too early to praise the magnitude of the undertaking or the enormity of its promise for our understanding of early childhood development. This program has the potential to cure a chronic deficiency in our knowledge about children raised in poverty, and about our understanding of what works best, for whom, and under what circumstances to mitigate the pernicious effects of poverty in our nation. That deficiency is the lack of a national database of norms against which to compare developmental progress of poor children in all of the important areas of growth. The cost of the NRS program and the scope of the undertaking are simply staggering, but the potential benefits from the program, if well executed, are even more impressive.
The future of legislation pertaining to Head Start is also in transition. The funding of Head Start is gradually shifting to the states, and as a federally regulated program, Head Start must continue to build ties to state and local agencies. Already, most states in the country sponsor similar preschool programs, albeit usually of lesser cost and sometimes lesser quality than Head Start. Local school districts are also moving in the direction of expanding their preschool offerings, especially for low-income families. Recent changes in our national welfare systems have mandated a high priority on quality child care, in order to support the requirements of further education and employment, especially of low-income mothers. Since 1990, ACYF has financially supported several partnerships between Head Start and state-operated agencies, aiming to coordinate early education, child care, and health care. These partnerships are vital because it has been suggested that the widely documented fade-out effect may diminish if children’s educational and social environments improve as well.
There are pervasive and persistently adverse influences on child development that are associated with extreme poverty in our society. Poor American children spend at most 40 of their waking hours in school settings each week, but half again as many waking hours in impoverished homes and neighborhoods that typically breed very different behaviors, attitudes, skills, and values than those promoted in Head Start. Therefore, if children graduate from Head Start but remain in impoverished neighborhoods and enter public schools without any compensatory assistance, this would present much greater challenges for those children to make strides academically or psychologically.
A second step that has potential impacts on children’s prospects is an alliance with public elementary schools. Developed in 1995 at Yale University, the School of the 21st Century program provides services associated with Head Start to children and families through their elementary schools. Such services include on-site preschool, before and after-school care, and family outreach. In keeping with the Head Start policy model, the Department of Education funded an evaluation of this program, to be conducted by the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. The results are still pending, and Head Start advocates believe that this will help bridge the transition of Head Start children to public schools.
A prospective policy funded by state and federal agencies that may have an impact on the future of Head Start is the trend toward universal access to preschool education. This may instigate competition between preschool programs, leaving Head Start to defend its need for future funding. Thus, the future of Head Start may lie in targeting the younger age bracket, including infants and toddlers, an effort that is already underway within the Early Head Start program. An evaluation of the effectiveness of Early Head Start is in progress, and results thus far appear promising. In the future, we may see a larger proportion of the Head Start budget shifting toward Early Head Start and other progressive programs in very early childhood.
- Administration of Children and Families: Head Start Bureau, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/hsb/
- Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF). (2000). FACES findings: New research on Head Start program quality and Washington, DC: Author.
- Berrueta-Clement, R., Schweinhart, L. J., Barnett, W. S., Epstein, A. S., & Weikart, D. P. (1984). Changed lives: The effects of the Perry Preschool Program on youths through age 19. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
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- National Head Start Association, http://www.nhsa.org/
- National Reporting System Information and Resources, http://www.headstartinfo.org/nrs_i&r.htm
- Oden, , Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D.P. (2000). Into adulthood: A study of the effects of Head Start. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
- Westinghouse Learning Corporation. (1969). The impact of Head Start: An evaluation of the effects of Head Start on children’s cognitive and affective development. Washington, DC: Clearinghouse for Federal, Scientific, & Technical Information.
- Zigler, , & Styfco, S. J. (2004). The Head Start debates. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.