Early Childhood Education

Head Start


Head Start is a comprehensive child development program that serves families with children from birth to five years. It is the longest lasting social program remaining from the 1960s Kennedy-Johnson era. Its primary goal has been to increase school readiness of young children in low-income families. All Head Start programs must adhere to federal Program Performance Standards. These standards define the services that Head Start Programs provide and identify the seven program components. This program has served 23 million children and their families since its inception.

Head Start began in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty program launched by President Lyndon Johnson. The program was conceived by a panel of child development experts who were invited by President Johnson to draw up a model to help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. Project Head Start was initially launched as an eight-week summer program for children aged three to five and their families. It was designed to help break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, intellectual, language, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. Head Start was developed in response to specific political, economic, and social pressures in the 1960s (Elkind, 1986) as well as new understandings about child development. From the start the program has been affected by politics, budget allocations, differing expectations about its purpose, and questions about its impact on children and their communities (Bee, 1981; Clemitt, 2005; Collins, 1989; McKey et al., 1985).

In 1965, Head Start enrollment was 561,000 and had a budget of $96.4 million. By fiscal year 2005, enrollment had grown to 906,993 and by fiscal year 2006 the budget appropriation had increased to more than $6.5 billion for programs, and an additional $231 million for training and technical assistance, research and demonstration projects, and monitoring and program reviews. This works out to an average cost per child of $7287 (2005).

During the 2004-2005 Head Start program year, 12.5 percent of the Head Start enrollment consisted of children with disabilities, nearly 49,000 children participated in home-based Head Start program services, and 91 percent of Head Start children had health insurance. Over 890,000 parents volunteered in their local Head Start program, more than 207,000 fathers were involved in regularly scheduled program activities, and 27 percent of Head Start program staff members were parents of current or former Head Start children.

In 1994, a reauthorization of the Head Start Act established a new Early Head Start program for low-income families with infants and toddlers. In Fiscal Year 2005, $684 million was used to support more than 650 programs to provide Early Head Start child development and family support services in all fifty states and in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. These programs served nearly 62,000 children under the age of 3. A historical strength of Project Head Start is its emphasis on family and community participation, as Head Start mandates parent involvement, including parent and community participation on parent governing councils. Because Head Start was conceived as part of the Community Action Programs in the Office of Economic Opportunity, community empowerment was a goal. However, over the years, Head Start programs have received praise as well as criticism for their flexibility of programming and involvement of the community in management. Over its forty-year history, Head Start has been consistent in its focus on a comprehensive developmental program that has included academic, health, and social initiatives for preschool age children, as well as parent and community involvement.

Head Start programs have focused, since the beginning, on children’s health and dental care, parent involvement, parent councils, employment opportunities for children’s parents, family literacy programs, inclusion of children with, special needs and programs for English Language Learners. Despite many debates, the most consistent framing of goals and recommended pedagogical approaches for children has been in terms of a comprehensive approach toward health and child developmental goals, or the “whole child”—physical, socioemotional, language, cognitive, and academic development were all considered important in the education of young children (see debates in Vinovskis, 2005; Zigler and Muenchow, 1992; and the most recent debates summarized in Zigler and Styfco, 2004). While Vinovkis’ (2005) history of Head Start shows that academic aims have been an important part of the debate related to curriculum in Head Start since its inception, fostering the development of the “whole child,” including preventive health and dental care, has been a long-term belief in Head Start, bolstered by evidence that this was an educational and cost-effective approach to quality early education for low-income children (see debates and evidence for and against this point in Zigler and Styfco, 2004). National guidelines focusing on developmentally appropriate” practice (see Bredekamp and Copple, 1997) reinforced the “whole child” curricular approach as “best practice” for all children. Therefore, until recently Head Start has emphasized a curriculum that fostered socioemotional development through play, the fostering of positive self-esteem, peer as well as adult relationships, and an integrated developmental approach to language development, cognitive development, and early literacy and numeracy knowledge (Zigler and Muenchow, 1992).

Late twentieth and early twenty-first century research on cognitive learning (National Research Council, 2001) and children’s eagerness to learn, as well as research on prevention of early reading failures (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998) focused attention on children’s capacity for greater cognitive and academic learning in Head Start programs, and in preschool programs, more generally. Recent research (see the synthesis by the National Research Council, 2001) focused attention on the importance of teacher training and teacher qualifications in early childhood education for delivery of a “high quality” program and desired child development and academic outcomes. Therefore, the low number of “qualified” Head Start teachers and teaching aides with bachelor’s degrees or associate degrees in early childhood related fields has been highlighted as one reason Head Start children continued to have academic problems compared to middle-income peers when entering school (see National Research Council, 2001; Zigler and Styfco, 2004). It is argued that Head Start teachers were also insufficiently trained in early literacy, numeracy, or even in socioemotional development to produce sufficient, desirable long-term effects comparable to other experimental high- quality programs for young children (all of which had much higher costs per child and per teacher than the federally funded and much larger national Head Start program).

At its inception in the 1960s there were also debates about whether Head Start should be administered by the Office of Education, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), or by the Office of Economic Opportunity, where it eventually was situated as part of the Community Action Program. In 1970, Head Start was moved to HEW’s Office of Child Development, directed by Edward Zigler. By the 1990s, Head Start had become part of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). Arguments continue as to whether it should be moved to the Office of Education and become more focused on readiness for school, and school academics. In the spring of 2006, Head Start, still in DHS, was moved to the section focusing on welfare policies, which administers federal funds for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). This move reinforces a federal welfare policy that focuses on the temporary nature of federal assistance to low-income working families and their children for assistance to find and maintain employment, and for child-care or preschool education. It also integrates the Head Start program with other federally and state funded programs focused on low-income and “working poor” families.

Head Start began as a large-scale program that involved a large number of children from its first summer in 1965, and has continued to be a large social program throughout its forty-year history. Though Head Start has increased its coverage of children over the years, it has included from one-third to one-half of all eligible low-income children, in largely half-day programs. By beginning quickly and targeting many children and through involvement of community and parent members, including employment of parents as teacher aides or assistants, Head Start built a large community support-base, potentially at the cost of the “quality” of the teachers and their training to teach certain skills to children (see debates on these points in Delpit, 1995; Zigler and Styfco, 2004). The decisions to move quickly, to be comprehensive in aims, and to involve parents and community in multiple ways had many perceived advantages and positive effects. They also had some perceived disadvantages that are part of continuing debates and reforms (Vinovskis, 2005; Zigler and Muenchow, 1992; Zigler and Styfco, 2004). See also Child Development Group of Mississippi; National Head Start Association.

Further Readings: An annotated bibliography of Head Start research and a list of ongoing research studies on Head Start is available online at www2.acf.dhhs.gov/ programs/hsb/research/resources.htm; Bee, C. K. (1981). A longitudinal study to determine if Head Start has lasting effects on school achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Dakota; Bredekamp, S., and C. Copple, eds. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Clemmitt, M. (2005, August 26). Evaluating Head Start: Does it help poor children and their parents? CQ Researcher 15(29), 687-694; Collins, R. (1989). Head Start research and evaluation: Background and overview. Vienna, VA: Collins Management Consulting; Delpit, L. (1995). Other peoples’ children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press; Elkind, D. (1986). Formal education and early childhood education: An essential difference. Phi Delta Kappan 67, 631-636; McKey, R. H., L. Condelli, H. Ganson, B. J. Barrett, C. Mc-Conkey, and M. C. Plantz (1985). The impact of Head Start on children, families, and communities. Final report of the Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis, and Utilization Project. Washington, DC: CSR Inc. for the Head Start Bureau, Administration for Children, Youth and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; National Research Council (2001). Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Snow, C. E., M. S. Burns, and P. Griffin, eds. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available online at http://books.nap.edu/html/prdyc/; Vinovskis, M. A. (2005). The birth of Head Start: Preschool education policies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Zigler, E., and S. Muenchow (1992). Head Start: The inside story of America’s most successful educational experiment. New York: Basic Books; Zigler, E., and S. Styfco, eds. (2004). The Head Start debates. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Michael Kalinowski, Marianne Bloch, and Ko Eun Kim