Head Start

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Head Start is a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that focuses on assisting children from low-income families. Created in 1965, Head Start is the longest-running program designed to stop the cycle of poverty in the United States. It provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. Currently, Head Start is a program within the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the HHS. Programs are administered locally by non-profit organizations and local education agencies such as school systems.

Head Start was established to address the problem that children from poor families are caught in a cycle of poverty, not receiving adequate support in all aspects of their development to mature into successful citizens. Although the outcome assessed is academic achievement, the program includes support for the children's physical development, through health care and nutrition programs, as well as intellectual stimulation. Although Head Start continues, it has always been controversial. This is because numerous factors are involved, not the least of which being the definition of a successful outcome. For many in the Head Start program, once they have completed Head Start and entered elementary school they fall behind. This is because they are not receiving the needed level of support to continue their development. While preschool education can prepare a child for their education, it is only a preparation.

The parent is the first teacher; preschool teachers should function as extensions of these parents. When the family fails the child, society (in the form of programs like Head Start) can step in to assist, but this assistance must focus on the basic needs as well as providing intellectual stimulation. Given the importance of the youth of any society for its future, investment in such efforts, particularly when including investment in the families who are the primary caregivers and first teachers of their children, can go a long way to support the development of good citizens for the future.


Did you know?
The Head Start program was initated as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty

Head Start was started as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. A key part of the Great Society domestic agenda, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 authorized programs to help meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. Some economists and advisers to President Johnson at the time believed that poverty was directly linked to a lack of adequate education. Children from poorer areas and families often struggled in school and were prone to high drop out rates, reducing there chances of finding employment that paid well. Hence, poorer children tended to remain poor as well develop families of there own that faced the same difficulties they did as children. The belief at the time was that boosting academic achievement would help break the cycle of and ultimately diminish poverty in general.[1]

A panel of experts, including Edward Zigler the Yale child development expert who is often referred to as the "father" of Head Start, Mamie Clark, and Urie Bronfenbrenner, recognized two main areas that hindered the success of disadvantaged children in school: First, poorer children, upon entering compulsory schooling (usually at the kindergarten level since poorer families could not afford preschool) were at a lower intellectual level than other students.[2] There were many theories for this. Poor children often came from parents who themselves were not highly educated and thus were not able to pass on academic knowledge to their children. They also had less access to educational and social stimuli than their middle and higher class peers. Second, poorer children did not have access to the level of health care that children from middle and higher class families did, and therefore were more likely to develop more medical conditions that went undiagnosed for long periods of time. Often, since these conditions went untreated for some time, developed into more serious problems that affected the child's academic performance and resulted into economic hardship for his or her families.[3]

Based on these findings, the Office of Economic Opportunity launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The project aimed to attack the main two problems facing preschool age children from low-income families by providing a program that would meet emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. It also targeted parents, encouraging them to become active in helping not just their own children, but others in similar situations as well.[3]

Although Head Start, along with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as a whole, was almost universally applauded as moves towards equality when they were created, there was a vocal opposition to such programs that gained momentum during the years that followed. Some of the detractors were motivated by political ideology, labeling Johnson's programs as being too liberal. Others, including some economists, felt that it was not the government's place to lend everyone such an extensive helping hand and that the efforts would not help curb poverty. President Richard Nixon was one such Head Start dissenter who felt that there were no data that could reliably prove that the program worked. However, Head Start was very popular and Nixon merely attempted to trim back some of the costs. One such change was having the program's administration transferred to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)) in 1969.

Head Start has served over 30 million children and their families in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories. The 6.8+ billion dollar budget for 2005 provided services to more than 905,000 children, 57 percent of whom were four years old or older, and 43 percent three years old or younger. Services were provided by 1,604 different programs operating in 57,000 classrooms scattered across every state (and nearly every county) at an average cost of $7,222 per child. The paid staff of nearly 212,000 people is dwarfed by an army of volunteers six times as large.[4]

Program Description

Head Start programs are operated in all 50 states of the U.S. and the District of Columbia. While Head Start is a federally funded and controlled program, it is administered by local governments and non-for profits that awarded grants based upon applications. While each program is allowed some leeway in its operation, each one must meet the basic requirements set forth by the Department of Health and Human Resources. Each organization hosting a Head Start program is encouraged to seek additional funding and help from sources other than the federal government.

Community Partnership is a sister program involved in operation, governance, and evaluation that helps keep the community being served involved with the program. Eligibility for Head Start services is largely income-based (100 percent of the federal poverty level), though each locally-operated program includes other eligibility criteria such as disabilities and services to other family members. As of late 2006, up to 10 percent of any funded program's enrollment can be from over-income families.

There are five main sub-programs offered by the Head Start Organization:

  • Early Head Start - promotes healthy prenatal outcomes, promotes healthy family functioning, and strengthens the development of infants and toddlers beginning as young as newborn infants. Within EHS are several initiatives, including Little Voices for Healthy Choices, a program that focuses on the nutrition and health of infants and toddlers.[5]
  • Head Start- helps to create healthy development in low-income children. Programs offer a wide variety of services that depend on a child's and each family's heritage and experience to influence all aspects of a child's development and learning.
  • Migrant and Seasonal Program Branch- provides the children of migrant and seasonal farm workers who meet income and other eligibility guidelines with Head Start services.
  • American Indian-Alaska Native Program Branch- provides American Indian and Alaska Native children and families with services such as: health care, educational, nutritional, socialization, as well as other services promoting school readiness. Services are primarily for disadvantaged preschool children, and infants and toddlers.
  • Family Partnership- focuses on the parents of Head Start children, getting them involved in their child's development, strengthening the parent-child relationship and even helping the parents develop their own skills to improve their lives. A new initiative lately has focused on fathers. Mothers have been for a long time viewed as sole care-takers and the more likely of the two parents to be involved in Head Start Programs, but the Male and Father-Involvement Initiative purposes to break this stereotype and cultivate strong male role-models in the lives of Head Start children.[6]


The long term effectiveness of Head Start is controversial. Below are a number of critical and positive reports or statements on Head Start. In light of the controversy, Congress commissioned an Impact Statement, which is discussed below.

Critical reviews

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner concluded that Head Start participation has no effect on test scores in early years of school, based on regression analysis of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.[7] Levitt and Fryer come to the same conclusion in one 2004 paper they wrote.[8]

Another issue has been that according to the most widely cited source supporting Head Start, children who finish the program and are placed into disadvantaged schools perform worse than their peers by second grade. Only by continuing to isolate these children (such as dispersing and sending them to better performing school districts) can the gains be captured.[9]

Mixed reviews

A study conducted in 2004 concluded that early education does increase reading and mathematics skills at school entry, but it also boosts children's classroom behavioral problems and reduces their self-control. Further, for most children the positive effects of pre-kindergarten on skills largely dissipate by the spring of first grade, although the negative behavioral effects continue.[10] However, the study also found that, in contrast to the general population in pre-kindergarten, disadvantaged children and those attending schools with "low levels of academic instruction" get the largest and most lasting academic gains from early education.

In their study, Currie and Thomas tried to control for many family background factors. The analysis is based on within-family data, comparing children in Head Start with their siblings who were not in Head Start. Also, mothers who were themselves enrolled in Head Start were compared to their adult sisters who were not. Currie and Thomas analyzed groups separately by ethnicity: White, Black and Hispanic. Those White children who were the most disadvantaged showed larger and longer lasting improvements than African-American children.[11]

Supportive reviews

Many of the most ardent supporters of Head Start are those that actively participate in the program. While many studies may question how successful Head Start is, many with direct, personal experience claim that statistics and numbers do not reflect the actual success of the program. There are some statistical data to support these beliefs. In 2003, a report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime organization, showed that children who participated in Head Start scored higher on IQ tests, and had higher SAT scores and graduation rates than those of similar background that were not active in Head Start.[12]

Congressional impact study

Congress mandated an intensive study of the effectiveness of Head Start, the "Head Start Impact Study," which has issued a series of reports on the design and study of a target population of 5,000 three- and four-year-old children.[13] The Head Start Impact Study First Year Findings were released in June of 2005. The study participants, beginning in fall 2002, were assigned to either the Head Start program or other parent-selected community resources. Thus, the study measured Head Start's effectiveness as compared to a variety of other forms of community support and educational intervention, as opposed to comparing Head Start to a non-intervention alternative. The results of the first report showed consistent small to moderate advantages to children from participating in Head Start programs rather than other programs, with a few areas where no advantage was reported. The benefits improved with early participation and varied among racial and ethnic groups.[13]

A follow-up of children in third grade was designed to assess the impact of Head Start on children’s well-being, and on parental practices that contribute to children’s well-being, through their third grade year. The report was released in 2012, and showed, in summary, that "there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."[14] These results, which revealing that by third grade, Head Start had "little to no effect on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes of participating children," have seriously challenged the effectiveness of the Head Start program.[15]


  1. Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow, Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment (Basic Books, 1994, ISBN 0465028853).
  2. Elaine Woo, Obituary of Urie Bronfenbrenner; theories altered approach to child development; at 88 The Boston Globe, September 29, 2005. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Aliene S. Linwood, head start Encyclopedia of Children's Health (Answers Corporation, 2006). Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  4. Office of Head Start. Retrieved May 28, 2013.
  5. Early Head Start National Resource Center, "EHS Home Page." Retrieved November 11, 2007.
  6. National Head Start Association, Introduction to the Male and Father-Involvement Initiative. www.nhsa.org. Retrieved November 11, 2007.
  7. Institute for Education Science, U.S. Department of Education, Early Childhood Longitudinal Program Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  8. Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Steven D. Levitt, "Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School" The Review of Economics and Statistics 86(2)(2004): 447-464. Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  9. "Administrative History of the Office of Economic Opportunity," Vol. I, 252, Box 1, LBJ Library.
  10. David R. Francis, Does Prekindergarten Improve School Preparation and Performance? National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  11. Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas, Stalking the Wild Taboo: Does Head Start Make a Difference? The American Economic Review 85(3) (1995): 341-364. www.lrainc.com. Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  12. Head Start Improves Achievement and Reduces Crime. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Retrieved November 11, 2007.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Administration for Children and Families (ACF) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start Impact Study and Follow-up, 2000–2009. www.acf.hhs.gov. Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  14. Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study, Executive Summary October 2012.
  15. Lindsey Burke and David B. Muhlhausen, Head Start Impact Evaluation Report Finally Released The Heritage Foundation, Issue Brief #3823, January 10, 2013. Retrieved May 28, 2013.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Andrew, John A. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 1999. ISBN 1566631858
  • Books, Sue. Poverty and Schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and Consequences. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. ISBN 978-0805851939
  • Cravens, Hamilton. Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America's Children. The University of North Carolina Press, 2002. ISBN 0807854328
  • Iceland, John. Poverty in America: A Handbook. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006. ISBN 0520248414
  • Washington, Valo. Project Head Start: Models and Strategies for the Twenty-First Century. Garland Reference Library of Social Science, Vol. 827. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 0815312075
  • Zigler, Edward. The Head Start Debates: Are We Failing the Children most at Risk? Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1557667543
  • Zigler,Edward, and Susan Muenchow. Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment. Basic Books, 1994. ISBN 0465028853

External links

All links retrieved December 11, 2017.


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