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Head Start (education)

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Head Start (education)

Not to be confused with Operation Head Start.

The Head Start Program is a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. The program's services and resources are designed to foster stable family relationships, enhance children's physical and emotional well-being, and establish an environment to develop strong cognitive skills. The transition from preschool to kindergarten imposes diverse developmental challenges that include requiring the children to engage successfully with their peers outside of the family network, adjust to the space of a classroom, and meet the expectations the school setting provides.[1]

Launched in 1965[1] by its creator and first director Jule Sugarman, Head Start was originally conceived as a catch-up summer school program that would teach low-income children in a few weeks what they needed to know to start kindergarten. The Head Start Act of 1981[2] expanded the program.[3] The program was further revised when it was reauthorized in December, 2007. Head Start is one of the longest-running programs to address systemic poverty in the United States. As of late 2005, more than 22 million pre-school aged children had participated. Since 2000, the program's effectiveness has been debated in a range of studies: some have claimed that its successes are obvious, others have claimed that it produces both substantial successes and substantial failures, and yet others have claimed that its failures are sufficient to warrant its abolition.

Mission statement

"Head Start promotes school preparation by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services."[4] It has recently been changed to, “Helping people. Changing lives. Building communities.”


Head Start began as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society campaign. Its justification came from the President's Council of Economic Advisors, whose staff advanced the concept of investment in education during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.[5]

The Office of Economic Opportunity's Community Action Program launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The program was led by Dr. Robert Cooke, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Edward Zigler, a professor of psychology and director of the Yale Child Study Center. Together, they created a comprehensive child development program to help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. The following year it was authorized by Congress as a year–round program. In 1968, Head Start began funding a television program that would eventually be called Sesame Street, operated by the Carnegie Corporation Preschool Television project.

The historical context of Head Start's origins is significant. Johnson started the War on Poverty shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. The assassination shook the nation, and Johnson seized the opportunity to gain the nation's trust by achieving a string of important legislative victories during the subsequent months. Following the assassination, Johnson received a briefing from Walter Heller, who informed Johnson of the poverty program that Kennedy and former presidents always saw as an issue. Since Johnson had worked with poverty children before, he considered the program close to his heart and was determined to find money to help support it.

By March 1964, the legislation, now known as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, had been prepared for Congress. The legislation included training, educational, and service programs for the community and also added new programs including the Job Corps. In the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, it was a good time for Johnson to propose a bill that would help the nation and give people something to look forward to.[6]

In 1969 Head Start was transferred to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)) by the Nixon Administration. Today it is a program within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the HHS.

In fiscal year 1994, the Early Head Start program was established to serve children from birth to three years of age reflecting evidence that these years are critical to children's development. Programs are administered locally by nonprofit organizations and local education agencies such as school systems. Head Start also has a policy council. Members of this council are people from the local community and parents of the children enrolled in the program (citation needed). The program director works with this council as members provide advice regarding program goals.


Head Start has provided education, health, and social services for nearly 30 million children between the ages of three and five years old since its inception in 1965. It serves over 1 million children and their families each year in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories. Education includes pre-school education to national standards for all U.S. preschools. Health services include screenings, health check-ups, and dental check-ups. Social services provide family advocates to work with parents and assist them in accessing community resources for low-income families.

  • Early Head Start Program promotes healthy prenatal outcomes, healthy families, and infant and toddler development beginning as early as the birth of the child.
  • Head Start helps to create healthy development in low-income children ages three to five. Offers services that depend on each child's and family's culture and experience, to influence all aspects of a child's development and learning.
  • Family and Community Partnerships Head Start offers parents opportunities and support as they identify and meet their own goals, nurture their children in the context of their family and culture, and advocate for communities that support children and families of all cultures.
  • Migrant and Seasonal Head Start provides Head Start services to children of migrant and seasonal farm workers. Services target children from six months to five years of age. Because of the families' work constraints, service hours are longer and programs extend for fewer months than traditional Head Start.
  • Head Start targets indigenous American peoples' children and families.
  • Promotes the school-readiness of children from birth to five years old from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development.[7]

Homeless children

The 2007 Head Start reauthorization directed Head Start to serve homeless children. Homeless children "lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence". This includes the typical homeless child in a shelter or other outreach program, those living in motels or cars, but also children who are "sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reason".[8] Programs must identify such children and provide services within a reasonable period. Head Start programs must provide services to the younger and older siblings of such children.


Eligibility is largely income–based though each local program includes other eligibility criteria such as disabilities and services to other family members. Families must earn less than 130% of the federal poverty level. Up to 10% of any funded program's enrollment can be from higher income families or families experiencing emergency situations. All programs are required to provide full services to children with disabilities (10% of their total enrollment).

Budget and finance

The 2011 federal budget for Head Start is $8.1 billion. 85% is devoted to direct services and no more than 15% is to be spent on administration. In addition to the $8.1 billion of federal support, local grantees must provide a 20% cash or in-kind match. Each local grantee is required to have an annual financial audit, if it receives more than $500,000 of federal support.


Grants are awarded by ACF Regional Offices and the Office of Head Start's American Indian – Alaska Native and Migrant and Seasonal Program Branches directly to local public agencies, private organizations, Indian Tribes and school systems.[9]

The $6.8+ billion dollar budget for 2005 provided services to more than 905,000 children, 57% of whom were four years old or older, and 43% three years old or younger. Services were provided by 1,604 different programs operating more than 48,000 classrooms scattered across every state (and nearly every county) at an average cost of $7,222 per child. The staff consists of nearly 212,000 paid personnel and six times that number of volunteers.

Qualifications of teachers

Section 648A of the Head Start Act[10] lays out guidelines for the training of Head Start teachers and aides. All teachers must have associate degrees in a related field by 2013, and half must have bachelor's degrees.[11]

As of 2003, the average Head Start teacher made $21,000 per year, compared to the $43,000 that public school teachers made.[12] As of 2009, the average teacher made $26,000 per year.


In a study by Lee, data were collected across sixty Head Start classrooms in 2007 and 2008. A sample of 1,260 children ages three to four were selected as the final sample. Of these children, 446 had entered Head Start at age 3 and enrolled for a year (Group 1), 498 had been entered at age 4 and enrolled for a year (Group 2), and 316 children had been enrolled for 2 years, entering at age 3 (Group 3). The children's academic outcome measures in literacy, math, and science were collected based on the Head Start and Early Childhood Program Observational Checklist rating on a 4-point scale, 1 being not yet and 4 being excels. The children were also measured on the number of family risk factors indicators developed by the State Department of Education that included single parent, unemployed parent, teenage parent, parental loss by divorce or death, low parental school achievement, food insufficiency, and other factors as well. It was found that children who entered at age 3 and been enrolled in Head Start for two years (Group 3) had higher literacy, math, and science scores than both Group 2 and Group 1. It was also found that children who were classified as the high-risk group had significantly lower literacy, math, and science scores than those who had three or fewer risk factors. In conclusion, children who were enrolled for 2 years had higher scores than those who only stayed for a year, which shows that being enrolled in Head Start for a longer duration benefited the children.[1]

Supportive studies and statements

According to Datta[13][14] who summarized 31 studies, the program showed immediate improvement in the IQ scores of participating children, though nonparticipants narrowed the difference over time. Garces, Thomas, and Currie used data from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics to review outcomes for close to 4,000 adults followed from childhood. Among European–Americans, adults who had attended Head Start were significantly more likely to complete high school, attend college, and possibly have higher earnings in their early twenties than their nonparticipant siblings. African American adults who had attended Head Start were significantly less likely to be booked or charged for a crime than were their nonparticipant siblings. Head Start may increase the likelihood that African American males graduate from high school. In addition, the authors noted larger effects for younger siblings who attended Head Start after an older sibling.[15]

In addition, according to Seitz, Abelson, Levine, and Zigler (1975), who conducted a study comparing disadvantaged children that were not enrolled in Head Start and children that attended Head Start by looking at their Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). The participants were low-income inner-city black children from economically disadvantaged parents who were considered unskilled and unemployed.[16] Head Start children had attended Head Start for at least five months at the time of testing, which consisted of nine boys and 11 girls.[16] For the disadvantaged group, the children were on the waiting list to be enrolled into Head Start, which consisted of 11 boys and nine girls.[16] Both groups were matched by family income, parental employment and marital status.[16] The procedure of the testing was that the tester would come to the children's homes in both groups to test the children using the PPVT and also test the children away from their homes, in a school or office setting.[16] The results showed that Head Start children scored higher than the non Head Start children in both settings, which suggested preschool intervention programs may have influenced the result.[16] Interestingly, non Head Start children that were tested at home scored the lowest between the groups, due to anxiety factors of having an unfamiliar person in their homes.[16] On the other hand, Head Start children, the environmental factor did not matter, which suggested that having preschool intervention programs such as Head Start may influence motivational level by helping the children to maintain concentration.[16]

In a 2009 article evaluating Head Start, researcher David Deming published one of the most sophisticated evaluations of the program to date, using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This study compared siblings and found that those who attended Head Start not only showed stronger academic performance, as shown on test scores, for years afterward, but were also less likely to be diagnosed as learning disabled, less likely to commit crime, more likely to graduate high school and attend college, and less likely to suffer from poor health as an adult.[17]

Head Start is associated with significant gains in test scores. Head Start significantly reduces the probability that a child will repeat a grade.[1]

Criticisms resulted in plans to improve program services, by for example serving children above and below preschool age.[18]

Mixed studies and statements

DHHS 2011 study

A 2011 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start Impact, examined the cognitive development, social-emotional development, and physical health outcomes of Head Start students as compared to a control group that attended private preschool or stayed home with a caregiver. Head Start students were split into two distinct cohorts – 3-year-olds with two years of Head Start before kindergarten, and 4-year-olds with only one year of Head Start before kindergarten. The study found:

  1. Though the program had a "positive impact" on children's experiences through the preschool years, "advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole. Impacts at the end of kindergarten were scattered...."
  2. After first grade, there were no significant social-emotional impacts for the cohort of 4-year-olds, and mixed results on measures of shyness, social withdrawal and problematic student-teacher interactions. The cohort of 3-year-olds with two years of Head Start attendance, however, manifested fewer hyperactive behaviors and more positive relationships with parents.
  3. By the end of first grade, only "a single cognitive impact was found for each cohort". Compared to students in the control group, the 4-year-old Head Start cohort did "significantly better" on vocabulary and the 3-year-old cohort tested better in oral comprehension.

The study concludes, "Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade, a potentially important finding for children's longer term development."[19]

A within–family analysis compared children in Head Start with their nonparticipant siblings. Mothers who were themselves enrolled in Head Start were compared to their adult sisters who were not. Currie and Thomas separately analyzed white, black and Hispanic participants. White children, who were the most disadvantaged, showed larger and longer lasting improvements than black children.[20]

Many researchers argue that Head Start's significant initial impacts quickly fade. This phenomenon, known as "Head Start Fade", is evident as early as second and third grade.[21][22][23] One postulated reason for this effect is the fact that Head Start participants are significantly more likely than other children to attend lower-quality public schools, which can structurally undermine any advantage that Head Start would initially provide.[21]

In contrast to the general prekindergarten population, disadvantaged children and those attending schools with "low levels of academic instruction" get the largest and most lasting academic gains.[24]

Barnett and Hustedt (2005) reviewed the literature and stated that "Our review finds mixed, but generally positive, evidence regarding Head Start's long-term benefits. Although studies typically find that increases in IQ fade out over time, many other studies also find decreases in grade retention and special education placements. Sustained increases in school achievement are sometimes found, but in other cases flawed research methods produce results that mimic fade-out. In recent years, the federal government has funded large-scale evaluations of Head Start and Early Head Start. Results from the Early Head Start evaluation are particularly informative, as study participants were randomly assigned to either the Early Head Start group or a control group. Early Head Start demonstrated modest improvements in children's development and parent beliefs and behavior."[25]

Critical studies and statements

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 isolating such children (such as dispersing and sending them to better-performing school districts) could gains be sustained.[26]

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, "Head Start Falls Further Behind", Besharov and Call discuss an 1998 evaluation of the Head Start program that led to a national reevaluation of the program. The authors stated that research concluded that the current program had little meaningful impact. However, they did not cite primary sources.[27]

In 2011, Time magazine's columnist Joe Klein called for the elimination of Head Start, citing an internal report that the program is costly and makes a negligible impact on children's well-being over time. "You take the million or so poorest 3- and 4-year-old children and give them a leg up on socialization and education by providing preschool for them; if it works, it saves money in the long run by producing fewer criminals and welfare recipients ... it is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work."[28] W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, rebuts Klein, "Weighing all of the evidence and not just that cited by partisans on one side or the other, the most accurate conclusion is that Head Start produces modest benefits including some long-term gains for children."[29]

One study found no evidence that Head Start participation had lasting effect on test scores in the early years of school.[30]

Congressional Impact Study

In 1998, Congress mandated an intensive study of the effectiveness of Head Start, the "Head Start Impact Study", which issued a series of reports on the design and study of a target population of 5,000 3- and 4-year old children.[31]

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 nonintervention alternative. Earlier Head Start Impact Study First Year Findings were released in June 2005. Study participants were assigned to either Head Start or other parent–selected community resources for one year. 60% of the children in the control group were placed in other preschools. The first report showed consistent small to moderate advantages to 3 year old children including pre-reading, pre-vocabulary, and parent reports of children's literacy skills. No significant impacts were found for the constructs oral comprehension and phonological awareness or early mathematics skills for either age group. Fewer positive benefits were found for 4 year olds. The benefits improved with early participation and varied among racial and ethnic groups. These analyses did not assess the durability of the benefits.[32]

See also


External links

  • Office of Head Start (official)
  • Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (official)
  • National Head Start Association (official)
  • The Head Start Experience
  • Read Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports regarding Head Start
  • The Center for Law and Social Policy
  • National Bureau of Economic Research

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