Policy Council | Board of Directors | Annual Report
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Head Start is a federally funded child development program providing education and other services to children of disadvantaged families. The program was developed during the 1960s as an outgrowth of the Economic Opportunity Act. It began as a summer program called Project Head Start and was eventually placed within the federal program Good Start, Grow Smart. Today, Head Start remains committed to child, family, and community—as it was more than fifty years ago—but since then, it has added a professional development component for its instructors. Research on the effectiveness of the program has been controversial, with some studies finding students making great gains through the program, and others indicating that such gains tend to be minimal as students advance past third grade.
Keywords Child Development Programs; Early Childhood Education; Economic Opportunity Act (EOA); Good Start, Grow Smart; Head Start; Head Start Synthesis Project; Office of Equal Opportunity; Preschool; Project Head Start
Head Start is a preschool child development program designed to improve the academic performance in kindergarten and later grades of children from disadvantaged families. Head Start began in 1964 as Project Head Start, an initiative by the federal government that was developed to address the country's rising poverty and the poor academic performance rate of children from financially challenged families.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson asked Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), to convene a panel of experts and develop a plan to help disadvantaged Americans. The request came in response to pressure from policymakers and the general public, who were concerned over the country's growing poverty and over the high academic failure rate of underprivileged children. (Shipley & Oborn, 1996) Also, a growing body of data from recent research on child development showed that it was possible to improve academic success rates in kindergartners through intervention in the preschool years.
Shriver's panel soon came back with its recommendation—Project Head Start, a multi-faceted program providing preschool-age children from financially challenged families with opportunities and experiences normally enjoyed by children from wealthier families (Shipley & Oborn, 1996). Project Head Start was designed to aid children's emotional and intellectual growth and to help meet their health and nutrition needs.
Conditions at the time were ripe for a new and ambitious federal project. The government was enjoying a budget surplus from the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964, which implemented several social programs to help educate and improve the health and welfare of the underprivileged. Shriver was anxious to see this surplus put toward a program for children. The purpose of the EOA, said President Johnson, was "not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it; and, above all, to prevent it" (cited in Shipley & Oborn, 1996, p. 3). Though the Act did not call for the formation of Head Start or any other program, it charged the OEO—which was formed as a result of the act's passage—with focusing on the needs of children (Shipley & Oborn, 1996).
Project Head Start began in 1965, enrolling 561,359 preschool-age children in 11,068 centers across the country (Shipley & Oborn, 1996). Developers of the eight-week summer program had expected an enrollment of about 100,000 (Hodges & Cooper, 1981), but because it was widely advertised and the need for such a program had long existed, parents flocked to sign up their children. In areas where schools normally offered kindergarten, participants were five years old and set to enter kindergarten in the fall after Head Start ended. In other places where kindergartens did not exist, they were six years old and bound for the first grade (Hodges & Cooper, 1981).
In most places in the country where Head Start was offered, the program modeled itself after traditional nursery schools and followed the "Daily Program I for the Child Development Center," a popular curriculum of the time. The Daily Program called for consistent daily schedules and abundant, appropriate learning materials, and it used a "learning through living" approach. This approach applied not just to classes and teaching, but to "all the experiences, which the Center makes possible for its children" (Shipley & Oborn, 1996, p. 46). At the heart of the curriculum were four instructional principles: self-image, language, curiosity, and discipline. Teachers were urged to take the students' interests to heart. Evaluations of children in the program were done before it began and afterward using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (which gauges a child's aural vocabulary) and a preschool evaluation inventory developed by the OEO. (Shipley & Oborn, 1996).
The first summer of Head Start was extraordinarily hectic. Organizers rushed to hire staff and find space. They hurriedly drafted a program and created assessment instruments.
Initially, Head Start had seven objectives:
• Improve each child's physical health and abilities
• Improve emotional and social development
• Better cognitive processes and skills
• Establish patterns and expectations of success
• Improve each child's abilities to relate to his family while strengthening family stability and communication
• Engender in children and their families responsibility and accountability within society while giving society more opportunities to work with and help the underprivileged
• Give each child and his family a heightened sense of dignity.
Unfortunately, because of the hasty nature of the program's genesis, these objectives were mostly ignored. However, in retrospect, they are very revealing, as they articulated not just an educational curriculum but also a broad range of humane and societal goals. Head Start was meant not just to better each child's performance kindergarten, but also to improve society (Hodges & Cooper, 1981).
Though most local programs followed the dictated curriculum, there were exceptions. In some areas of the country where preschools, kindergartens, and early childhood teachers are scarce, Head Start was taught by elementary school teachers on summer break. Children in these programs received less of the age-appropriate Daily Program curriculum and more academic instruction (Hodges & Cooper, 1981). Over the next years, Head Start's organizers would establish instructional models for all teachers at the local level.
Parents, educators, and legislators immediately embraced the government's latest initiative, lauding its unique compass of services. In addition to readying children for school and aiding their psychological development, the program provided daycare, family and social services, and medical and dental treatment—all from one location. This "one-stop" service model for preschool children was the single greatest contributor to Head Start's instant and enduring success (Shipley & Oborn, 1996).
In 1969, control of Head Start was taken over from the OEO by the Office of Child Development in the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 2007, Head Start was reauthorized by Congress through the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act and is administered by the Office of Head Start in the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. As of 2013, Head Start is the federal government’s only preschool program.
In 2006, the federal government poured $6.8 billion (Administration for Children and Families) into the program, distributing grants to the roughly 1,400 community-based non-profit organizations that administer Head Start at the local level. Curretly, five-year renewable grants are administered by the federal government to Head Start programs that are run by organizations, school districts or local government agencies, with approximately 10 percent of the grants being awarded to school districts. In 2013, 1,654 organizations received Head Start grants (New America Foundation, 2013).
In 2006, almost 906,000 children participated in the program. Of these, 62,000 were under 3 years of age and involved in Early Head Start, a program begun in 1995 to help families with infants and toddlers (Dept. Health & Human Services). In 2013, the program served over 962,000 children, 848,000 of which are between the ages of three and five (New America Foundation, 2013). Head Start operates in all 50 U.S. states and in U.S. territories, serving children in urban and rural areas and on American Indian reservations (About Head Start).
Early Head Start Program In 1995, Congress approved an offshoot of the Head Start program, known as Early Head Start, that was designed to service children from birth through age three. The program allowed for home visits by social workers to provide information and support to new mothers on breast feeding, nutrition, and child development. Early Head Start also providing funding for birth-to-three child care programs. In 2013, over 112,000 children were enrolled in Early Head Start programs, which received over $1 billion in federal funding that year (New America Foundation, 2013).
Head Start Reforms
The 2007 reauthorization of Head Start by Congress contained several reforms to the program, including placing greater emphasis on teacher education and credentials. By 2011, for example, all lead teachers were expected to have at least an associate’s (two-year) degree in early childhood education or a related field. Within two years, by 2013, half of all Head...