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Head Start Program

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 early childhood 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 elementary school 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[2] 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 elementary school. The Head Start Act of 1981[3] expanded the program.[4] The program was revised when it was reauthorized in December, 2007. Head Start is one of the longest-running programs attempting to address systemic poverty in the United States. As of late 2005, more than 22 million children had participated. The program's effectiveness has been debated in a range of studies: advocates claim that its successes are obvious, opponents respond that it produces both substantial successes and substantial failures and others 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."[5] 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 staff of the President's Council of Economic Advisors.[6]

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. They designed a comprehensive child development program intended 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 series that would eventually be called Sesame Street, operated by the Carnegie Corporation Preschool Television project.

Johnson started the War on Poverty shortly after President Kennedy's assassination. The killing shook the nation and Johnson attempted to gain public trust by passing legislation during the subsequent months. Johnson received an initial briefing from Walter Heller, who informed Johnson of Kennedy's poverty program. 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 included the Job Corps.[7]

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 (DHHS)) by the Nixon Administration. Today it is a program within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in DHHS.

In 1994, the Early Head Start program was established to serve children from birth to age three, attempting to capitalize on evidence that these years are critical to children's development. Programs are administered by local nonprofit organizations and education agencies such as school systems.

In the early years, some 700,000 children enrolled at a per-capita cost of $2,000 to $3,000 (2011 dollars). Under the full-time program, enrollment dropped to under 400,000 by the early 1970s. Enrollment reached close to 1 million children by 2011.

Policy council

The Head Start policy council makes up part of the Head Start governing body. Policy council consists of parents or grandparents of children participating in the program. There can be one policy council representative from each classroom and each representative must be elected by the parents in his or her classroom during a parent meeting. The policy council is required to meet once each month. The fiscal year runs November - November, so that is the length of a term. There is a limit of three years of service per lifetime on the policy council board. The meetings are conducted in accordance with Robert's Rules. The meeting day and time is agreed upon during the first meeting of the term year and may be adjusted as needed. Policy council members receive three-ring binders with all of the information about how to run the board. The binders also serve as a place to hold meeting minutes and other handouts given during each session. The policy council is required to approve any new hires to the program as well as the budget and spending. The council is able to serve the program in ways that the others in the program cannot, as policy council is the only part of Head Start that is able to do any fundraising. In addition to monthly meetings, policy council may at times need to hold special or emergency meetings or have a phone vote. Policy council representatives are required to attend classroom meetings and report back to the policy council with ongoings and any needs of his or her classroom. They may also be asked to sit in on interviews as Head Start requires that a policy council rep be present for all interviews. The officers of policy council include chairperson vice-chairperson, secretary and vice-secretary. Classrooms are also able to elect alternate policy council reps in case the main rep is unable to attend the meetings.

Services and programs

Head Start 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. Services include pre-school education health screenings, health check-ups and dental check-ups. Family advocates assist parents in accessing community resources. All services are specific to each family's culture and experience. Targets include cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Programs include:

  • Early Head Start promotes healthy prenatal outcomes, healthy families and infant and toddler development beginning as early as birth.
  • Head Start helps to create healthy development in low-income children ages three to five.
  • Family and Community Partnerships offers parents opportunities and support as they identify and meet their own goals, nurture their children and advocate for communities that support children and families.
  • Migrant and Seasonal services children of migrant and seasonal farm workers. Services target children from six months to five years. Service hours are longer and programs extend for fewer months than traditional Head Start.
  • Head Start serves indigenous Americans.[8]
  • Homeless children became an explicit target with the 2007 reauthorization.[9] Programs must identify and provide services to homeless children of all ages within a reasonable period.


Eligibility is largely income–based, although each local program includes other eligibility criteria, such as disabilities and services needed by other family members. Families must earn less than 100% of the federal poverty level. Families may also qualify under a categorical eligibility category—receipt of TANF funds, Supplemental Security funds, or Homeless as per the McKinney-Vento Act. 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 services to children with disabilities who must comprise 10% of their total enrollment. Per the Head Start Act (2007), programs may select to serve families whose income is between 100-130% under certain circumstances. Programs must also complete additional reporting requirements if this is appropriate for their community.

Budget and funding

The 2011 federal budget for Head Start was $8.1 billion. 85% was to be devoted to direct services and no more than 15% on administration, serving approximately one million students.

Local grantees must provide a 20% cash/in-kind match.[citation needed] Each local grantee is required to obtain an annual financial audit, if it receives more than $500,000 of federal support.

Grants are awarded by ACF Regional Offices and the American Indian – Alaska Native and Migrant and Seasonal Program Branches directly to local public agencies, private organizations, Indian tribes and school systems.[10]


Most teachers are not certified, but do have at least an associate degree, and most have completed six or more courses in early-childhood education.[11] By 2013, all teachers were to have associate degrees in a related field and half must have bachelor's degrees.[12][13]

As of 2003, the average Head Start teacher made $21,000 per year, compared to the public school teacher average of $43,000.[14]


Head Start programs typically operate independently from local school districts. Most often they are administered through local social-services agencies. Classes are generally small with fewer than ten enrollees per adult staff member. Individual programs develop their own academic and social curricula, following federal performance standards.[11]


Many studies of program effectiveness have been conducted during Head Start's multi-decade history. The studies failed to produce an academic or political consensus about the program's impact.

Supportive studies and statements

In 2009, Deming evaluated the program, using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. He compared siblings and found that those who attended Head Start showed stronger academic performance as shown on test scores for years afterward, were less likely to be diagnosed as learning-disabled, less likely to commit crime, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, and less likely to suffer from poor health as an adult.[15]

Lee collected data 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). 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—not yet to 4—excels. Family risk factor indicators (developed by the State Department of Education) included single parent, unemployed parent, teenage parent, parental loss (divorce/death), low parental school achievement, food insufficiency. Group 3 had higher literacy, math and science scores than the other groups. Children in the high-risk group had significantly lower literacy, math, and science scores than those who had three or fewer risk factors. Head Start is associated with significant gains in test scores. Head Start significantly reduces the probability that a child will repeat a grade.[16]

In 2002, Garces, Thomas and Currie used data from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics to review outcomes for close to 4,000 participating adults followed from childhood and compared with non-participant siblings. 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. African American adults who had attended Head Start were significantly less likely to be booked/charged for a crime. Head Start may increase the likelihood that African American males graduate from high school. Separately the authors noted larger effects for younger siblings who attended Head Start after an older sibling.[17]

In 1998, Congress mandated an intensive study of the effectiveness of Head Start, the "Head Start Impact Study", which studied a target population of 5,000 3- and 4-year-old children.[18] The study measured Head Start's effectiveness as compared to other forms of community support and educational intervention, as opposed to comparing Head Start to a nonintervention alternative. 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 oral comprehension, 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 across racial and ethnic groups. These analyses did not assess the benefits' durability.[19]

In 1976, Datta summarized 31 studies, concluding that the program showed immediate improvement in IQ scores of participating children, though nonparticipants narrowed the difference over time.[20][not in citation given][21]

In 1975, Seitz, Abelson, Levine and Zigler compared disadvantaged children enrolled and not enrolled in Head Start, using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). The participants were low-income inner-city black children from unemployed, economically disadvantaged parents who were considered unskilled. The Head Start children had attended for at least five months at the time of testing, including nine boys and 11 girls. The non-enrolled group was on the Head Start waiting list. The control group consisted of 11 boys and nine girls. The groups were matched by family income, parental employment and marital status. The tester tested children at home and in a school or office setting. The Head Start children scored higher than the controls in both settings, which suggested preschool intervention programs may have influenced the result. Interestingly, the controls tested at home scored the lowest, apparently due to anxiety from having an unfamiliar person in their homes. The Head Start children were unaffected by the environmental factor. In evaluating this study vs. others, the relatively small sample size should be noted: 20 children vs. thousands in other studies. [22]

Mixed studies and statements

In 2005, Barnett and Hustedt 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."[23]

A 1995 within–family analysis compared subjects with nonparticipant siblings. Mothers who had themselves been enrolled in Head Start were compared to 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.[24]

Head Start "fade"

"Head Start Fade", in which significant initial impacts quickly fade, has often been observed, as early as second and third grade.[25][26][27] One hypothesis is that the decline is because Head Start participants are likely to attend lower-quality schools, which fail to reinforce Head Start gains.[25]

Critical studies and statements

Head Start Impact study

A 2010 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start Impact, examined the cognitive development, social-emotional development and physical health outcomes of 4,667[11] three- and four-year-old children in a nationally representative sample of programs across 23 states. Children were randomly assigned to either a Head Start group (participants) or a non-Head Start group (control group). The children in the two groups were similar in all measured characteristics at program entry. Pre-participation assessments of all critical outcome measures were taken. Control group children optionally enrolled in non-Head Start programs. Nearly half of the control-group children enrolled in other preschool programs. Outcome measures covered cognitive development, social-emotional development, health status and access to health care, and parenting practices. Head Start students were split into two cohorts – 3-year-olds with two years of Head Start and 4-year-olds with one year of Head Start.[11] The study found:

  • Participants showed positive effects in cognitive skills during their Head Start years, including letter-naming, vocabulary, letter-word identification and applied math problems,[11] although the "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...."[28] The gains applied to different skills across cohorts and grades, undermining generalizations about program impacts.[11]
  • Participants showed fewer significant improvements in social and behavioral skills, even in the Head Start year, with inconsistent results between the three- and four-year-old cohorts. The four-year-old cohort showed no significant improvement in the Head Start year or kindergarten, but in third grade, parents reported a significant reduction in total problem behavior and social and behavioral skills. Three-year-olds showed multiple, significant improvements in social and behavioral skills, but only for outcomes assessed by parents. Significant negative effects emerged in teacher relationships as rated by first-grade and third-grade teachers; and no significant positive effects for this cohort were reported by teachers for any elementary year.[11]
  • 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.[28]
  • Head Start had significant health-related effects, especially in increasing the number of children receiving dental care and having health-insurance coverage. These effects were not consistent, however. For example, while participants increased health-insurance coverage, it did not extend into the third-grade year for either cohort. Parenting practice changes were significant, but applied only to the three-year-old cohort. Most related to discipline, such as reduced spanking or time-outs. The spanking outcome occurred did not last into the first grade. The significant effect on parental reading to children did not last into kindergarten.[11]

A secondary analysis by Peter Bernardy used HSIS data to explore the transient aspect of the initial effects. He considered whether learning skills not examined in the HSIS might be more durable than cognitive skills. These included attention, persistence and confidence as evaluated by teachers, parents and independent assessors. Improvements in these skills could portend better longer-term outcomes.[11]

Bernardy also examined whether Head Start curriculum or elementary school quality affected outcomes and whether control group attendance at other preschools compromised the results. Only one effect was statistically significant out of the 43 possible comparisons, and none were in the elementary grades. Since statistical significance is generally measured at the 95th percentile, the false positive rate is 5 percent, meaning that approximately 2 "significant" effects would be expected to emerge from the 43 comparisons even if the data were random. The significant effect reported was the parent rating of attention at the end of the Head Start year for three-year-old children. This finding was not buttressed by ratings by independent assessors and teachers.[11]

The HSIS 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."[28]

Other comments

According to the Administrative History of the Office of Economic Opportunity, 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.[29]

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, "Head Start Falls Further Behind", Besharov and Call discuss a 1998 evaluation 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.[30]

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."[31] W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, rebutted 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."[32]

Fryer and Levitt found no evidence that Head Start participation had lasting effect on test scores in the early years of school.[33]

See also


  1. ^ McWayne, C. M., Cheung, K.; Wright, L.; Hahs-Vaughn, D.L.; Thomas, D. (2012). Educational Psychology (PDF) 104 (3): 878.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ Currie, J.; Thomas, D. (1995). "Does Head Start Make A Difference?" (PDF). American Economic Review 85 (3): 341. 
  3. ^ FDA. Memorandum of Understanding.
  4. ^ Gonzalez-Mena, Janet (2009). Child, Family, and Community (Fifth ed.). Pearson Education. ISBN 978-0135132302. 
  5. ^ ACF Office of Public Affairs (OPA) Fact Sheet – Head Start Bureau (HSB).
  6. ^ Vinovskis, Maris A. (2005). The Birth of Head Start publisher=University of Chicago Press pages=36–37. ISBN 978-0226856728. 
  7. ^ Lyndon B. Johnson and the War on Poverty 
  8. ^ The Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework 
  9. ^ NAEHCY 
  10. ^ Head Start factsheet, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool > Publications >". National Affairs. 2013-12-20. Retrieved 2014-04-08. 
  12. ^ Glod, Maria (November 15, 2007). "Bill to Expand Head Start, Bolster Its Teacher Qualifications Is Approved". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  13. ^ Head Start Act Section 648A
  14. ^ NIEER Fact Sheet on Head Start Teachers – July 2003.
  15. ^ Deming, D. (2009). "Early Childhood Intervention and Life-Cycle Skill Development: Evidence from Head Start". American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1 (3): 111. doi:10.1257/app.1.3.111.  edit
  16. ^ Lee, K. (2011). "Impacts of the duration of Head Start enrollment on children's academic outcomes: Moderation effects of family risk factors and earlier outcomes". Journal of Community Psychology 39 (6): 698. doi:10.1002/jcop.20462.  edit
  17. ^ Eliana Garces, Duncan Thomas, Janet Currie (September 2002). "Longer-Term Effects of Head Start". The American Economic Review 92 (4): 999–1012. doi:10.1257/00028280260344560. 
  18. ^ Impact study, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
  19. ^ First year executive summary (PDF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
  20. ^ Datta, L. (1976). The impact of the Westinghouse/Ohio evaluation on the development of project Head Start: An examination of the immediate and longer-term effects and how they came about. In C. C. Abt (Ed.), The evaluation of social programs (pp. 129–181)
  21. ^ Lee, V. E.; Brooks-Gunn, J.; Schnur, E.; Liaw, F. R. (1990). "Are Head Start Effects Sustained? A Longitudinal Follow-up Comparison of Disadvantaged Children Attending Head Start, No Preschool, and Other Preschool Programs". Child Development 61 (2): 495–507. PMID 2344785. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1990.tb02795.x.  edit
  22. ^ Seitz, V. Abelson, W., Levine, E. & Zigler, E."Effects of place of testing on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test scores of disadvantaged Head Start and non-Head Start children", Child Development, 1975
  23. ^ Barnett, W. Steven; Hustedt, Jason T. (January/February/March 2005). "Head Start's Lasting Benefits". Infants & Young Children 18 (1): 16–24. doi:10.1097/00001163-200501000-00003.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  24. ^ Currie; Thomas (1995), Head Start, LRA [dead link]
  25. ^ a b Valerie E. Lee, Susanna Loeb (Spring 1995). "Where Do Head Start Attendees End up? One Reason Why Preschool Effects Fade out". Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 17 (1): 62–82. doi:10.2307/1164270. 
  26. ^ S. Barnett (1993). "Does Head Start Fade Out?". Education Week 5: 40. 
  27. ^ S. Barnett (Winter 1995). "Long Term Effects of Early Childhood Programs on Cognitive and School Outcomes". The Future of Children 5 (3): 25–50. doi:10.2307/1602366. 
  28. ^ a b c Weigel, Margaret (August 11, 2011). "Head Start Impact: Department of Health and Human Services Report". Journalist's 
  29. ^ Administrative History of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Vol. I, p. 252, Box 1
  30. ^ Besharov, Douglas J.; Call, Douglas M. (February 7, 2009). "Head Start Falls Further Behind". College Park, MD: The New York Times. Retrieved February 8, 2011. 
  31. ^ Klein, Joe (July 7, 2011). "Time to Ax Public Programs That Don't Yield Results". Time. 
  32. ^ Valerie Strauss, "Does Head Start work for kids? The bottom line", The Washington Post, March 5, 2013.
  33. ^ Fryer; Levitt (2004), Understanding the blacK-white test score gap in the first two years of school (PDF), University of Chicago 

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