Head Start Endures, Evolves as 50-Year Milestone Nears

By Christina A. Samuels — August 05, 2014 11 min read
Ceremony for National Head Start Day on June 30, 1965, at the White House. Front row, right to left: Sargent Shriver, who spearheaded the program as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity; Lou Maginn, director of a Head Start project in Vermont; Lady Bird Johnson; entertainer Danny Kaye; and Mr. Shriver's sons Robert Shriver and Timothy Shriver.
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Few other federal programs so fully embody the heady optimism and charge-ahead spirit of the War on Poverty as Head Start, envisioned 50 years ago as part of that sweeping presidential initiative and brought to life in the summer of 1965.

“Five- and 6-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a May 1965 speech in the White House Rose Garden, announcing the creation of a federally funded preschool program for the nation’s poorest children. “Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation, like a family birthmark.”

But the seeds of questions that Head Start has faced throughout its history were in many ways contained in its ambitious beginning.

Launched as an eight-week demonstration program with more than half a million children, Project Head Start would be expanded to a full-year program three months later. Over its nearly half-century in existence, the program has touched more than 31 million infants, toddlers, and other young children by wrapping them and their families in social, educational, and health supports intended to put them on a path out of poverty.

About This Series

War on Poverty: Progress & Persistent Inequity
This package of stories is the second in a series of articles in Education Week over the next 18 months to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and its impact on the lives of children, especially those living in poverty. Read more.

The program was ramped up so quickly, though, that there was no mechanism for carefully evaluating the community groups charged with providing the services at the heart of its broad mandate. Head Start and local school districts had an uneasy relationship in those early days, each keeping the other at arm’s length as a result of political conflicts and differing missions.

And the biggest challenge of all: answering the ongoing question of whether the program succeeds in giving poor children the boost they need to be successful in school and later in life. Congressionally mandated studies of Head Start children have found that by early elementary school, they are academically indistinguishable from their peers who did not attend the program—a reason to drastically revamp or even discontinue the program, experts say.

Those who work in Head Start argue that problems attributed to Head Start are more properly the responsibility of the schools children attend once they leave the program. And those studies are sampling only a small part of the life of a child, overlooking the diplomas earned, the criminal records avoided, and the improved life prospects that come from being a Head Start child.

Head Start at a Glance

Head Start is administered though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and “promotes school readiness for children in low-income families by offering educational, nutritional, health, social, and other services.

Vital Statistics (Fiscal 2013)

  • Funded enrollment slots: 903,679 (approximately 1.1 million children and pregnant women served, because of enrollment turnover)
  • Funding: $7.6 billion, which includes a 5.3 percent reduction due to sequestration. The originally budgeted amount was $8 billion.
  • Initial funding date: May 1965
  • Initial funding amount: $96 million ($726 million in 2014 dollars)
  • Alumni: More than 31 million served since the program’s inception
  • Number of grantees: About 1,700


  • Age: 47 percent, 4-year-olds; 35 percent, 3-year-olds; remainder are children up to age 2 and pregnant women
  • Race: 42 percent white, 29 percent black, 13 percent unspecified, 9 percent biracial, 4 percent Alaska Native/American Indian, 2 percent Asian, 6 percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 63 percent non-Hispanic, 37 percent Hispanic

SOURCE: Office of Head Start

“Let’s look at the whole picture here. We’re looking at a snapshot and calling it everything, and I call that a little crazy,” said Vanessa Rich, the deputy commissioner for children and youth services for the city of Chicago and the current chairwoman of the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group for providers, based in Alexandria, Va.

Major Changes

Still, as Head Start nears its 50-year milestone, the program is going through dramatic—and sometimes painful—changes.

The program currently is financed at about $8 billion a year, and it serves about a million children up to age 5 and their families. Children under age 3 and low-income pregnant women were added to the program’s mandate after a 1994 reauthorization.

Its approximately 1,700 grantees, once given continuing grants as long as they didn’t have major financial or safety problems, are shifting to a five-year funding cycle. Grantees that are deemed low-performing are being forced to compete for continued funding. The office of Head Start in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says the competition will ensure high-quality providers, but some program leaders say minor problems can result in centers’ unfair labeling as bad places for children.

At the same time, Head Start providers are forging closer bonds with schools and with state-run preschool programs, which have doubled their enrollment of 4-year-olds over the past decade—taking away some of the children Head Start has traditionally served. The program also has started a new outreach to day-care providers through funding that will allow Early Head Start grantees to form partnerships with those private businesses, which would then agree to follow the federal program’s quality standards.

Such seismic shifts in Head Start’s operations do not take away from its essential role in the lives of low-income families, say those who have worked or participated in the program.

“When a Head Start program is a strong program, it really is an anchor for the community,” said Ann Linehan, the acting director of the Head Start office and a former Head Start director in Waltham, Mass. “And in some communities, Head Start really is the only thing that folks who are struggling have as a resource.”

Program’s Genesis

Head Start was the brainchild of Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s chief adviser in the War on Poverty. Though opinions vary on who coined the name (“Kiddy Corps” was an early contender), the administration jumped on the idea and wanted to launch the effort quickly and broadly. It brought together a planning committee to create a framework for a national program.

Edward F. Zigler, then a 34-year-old associate professor of psychology at Yale University, was asked to join the committee, which created the foundation of Head Start in a hectic six weeks in early 1965. The planning committee envisioned serving perhaps 25,000 children that first summer, Mr. Zigler said in a recent interview with Education Week. But Mr. Shriver had bigger aspirations.

“Look, if you have a small program, it’ll be an experiment, and it’ll probably vanish within a year,” Mr. Shriver argued, according to Mr. Zigler. “And he kind of made a compelling case. I mean, we had programs like this that lasted a year or two, so the planning committee kind of went along with him.”

A hallmark of Head Start since its earliest days has been its focus on both parent involvement and child well-being beyond academics.

“It was new in two exceedingly important ways that are still here,” said Mr. Zigler, now a professor emeritus at Yale University, where the Center in Child Development and Social Policy bears his name.

“One is parent involvement. Before Head Start, there was not the degree of parent involvement in any of the early preschool programs,” he said. “The second was comprehensive services. Health, social services, all the things—I mean, if you’re interested in the development of children, you can’t just stop with education, and the planning committee saw that.”

But that fast start—Mr. Zigler said the nickname of Head Start was “Project Rush-Rush"—also led to programs of dramatically different levels of quality. And it also forced the government to spread its money thinly, while asking programs to be responsible for transforming the lives of children living in profound deprivation.

Gains Seen to Fade Out

The first major national study of Head Start was conducted in 1969 by Westinghouse Learning Corp. and Ohio University, and its findings have echoed throughout the years in other studies of Head Start. The participating children started school making gains, but those gains appeared to fade out by the time the children reached 3rd grade.

In 2010 and 2012, Head Start released results of its most ambitious study to date, which had been mandated by Congress in 1998. The study, conducted by a team of investigators led by the Rockville, Md.-based research group Westat, compared a random sample of Head Start children with a group of similar children who were not in Head Start, though many of them attended some other preschool program.

The children were evaluated in the 1st and 3rd grades. In 1st grade, the investigators found a few statistically significant differences between the two groups of children. Those differences were not sustained through the end of 3rd grade.

Those findings came while Head Start was in the midst of developing a new competition process intended to weed out low-performing providers. President Barack Obama, announcing the rules of that process in 2011, said that Head Start was an “outstanding program and a critical investment.” But, he added, “under the old rules governing Head Start, there just wasn’t enough accountability. ... We’re not just going to put money into programs that don’t work.”

Currently, two groups of grantees have gone through the complete “designation renewal” process, and some have had all or part of their former coverage area assigned to different providers. Grantees in a third group have been notified that they will be required to compete for funding against other interested organizations.

“While the work has been a lot, I think we feel like this is a positive thing for the Head Start community,” said Ms. Linehan, the acting Head Start director.

In this March, 2000, photo, Marcelino Albertson, 1, enjoys eggs for breakfast at the Early Head Start program in Wenatchee, Wash.

Blanca Enriquez, the executive director of the Region 19 Head Start program that serves El Paso and Hudspeth counties in Texas, which successfully completed the competition, said the process known as designation renewal was bruising.

The grantee had already gone through a federal evaluation that found only minor problems, Ms. Enriquez said. Then news broke that a 2-year-old was left on a Head Start bus for about two hours in May 2012. The child, found sleeping, was not hurt. But Ms. Enriquez said the event prompted the federal Head Start office to place the 28-year-old program, which serves about 4,000 children, on the list for competition.

“They make it like you’re the black sheep,” said Ms. Enriquez, who served on the federal committee that created a framework for the grant competition process. “You have to wonder if this designation renewal is really getting at the core of those programs that have no business implementing early-childhood education.”

Competition and a five-year grant cycle will ultimately improve Head Start, she said. “But, my god, they take you to the grinder.”

Ideas for Overhaul

Improving Head Start is a cottage industry for those interested in early-childhood education and anti-poverty measures. Recurring ideas include moving the program from HHS to the U.S. Department of Education and providing federal money in the form of block grants to the states, instead of direct funding to local agencies.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who headed the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences during the George W. Bush administration, supports upending Head Start as now constituted. Give the money to parents in the form of vouchers, and let them shop for the care providers they prefer, he says. The federal government would support states in ensuring that high-quality preschool options were available to parents, he says, and that parents were educated in how to evaluate the options.

Fifty years ago, Head Start clearly was the best choice for many children, said Mr. Whitehurst, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The question is whether it’s the best now for children of low-income parents,” he said. “It’s not the best option in most cases, and its not producing the long-term impact.”

W. Steven Barnett, the executive director of the National Institute of Early Education Research, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., sees the need for changes in a different area. Head Start must toss out a good portion of the regulations that have hamstrung innovation in the program, he says.

“There’s a good intention behind every single one,” said Mr. Barnett. “And each one is a paving stone on the path to hell.”

Without those regulations holding programs back, he argues, Head Start could focus more on outcomes for children, and not compliance issues. And then the program could become a true laboratory for child-development research, he says.

Mr. Zigler, who managed the Head Start program in the 1970s, believes an underlying problem is that Head Start is not open to higher-income children, who could pay tuition on a sliding scale to attend. Poor children learn more when they attend programs that include children from higher-income backgrounds, he said.

“That’s the big mistake in Head Start. That’ll be there forever if we don’t change it,” he said.

Seen as a Lifeline

Head Start providers acknowledge that they feel buffeted by changes in political attitudes toward a program that historically has enjoyed broad support. In recent years, Head Start received an additional $1 billion in funding as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but was forced to absorb a 5 percent budget reduction under the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Reauthorization of the program is two years overdue.

But providers still see an essential role in shoring up poor communities.

Linda Broyles, the deputy director of the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program, in Girard, said her agency serves rural communities that border Oklahoma and Missouri and are rife with methamphetamine production. She said the low-income families in her community find Head Start to be a lifeline.

“In those small areas, we become those social outlets,” said Ms. Broyles, who was a Head Start parent. “I respect and honor what Head Start does in terms of engaging families, and I think that’s what sets us apart from other early-childhood programs.”

Ms. Rich, the child-services official in Chicago who chairs the National Head Start Association, said her connections with the program date back to its first summer, when she was a 12-year-old volunteer passing out cartons of milk. She now oversees her city’s Head Start program, which serves nearly 17,000 children.

Whatever changes come to Head Start, she says, should never separate it from its core mission of serving poor children and families.

“The minute that we take our eye off making sure there’s a program for poor children in this country, I worry they will be swept aside,” Ms. Rich said. “We still have a huge need in making sure the poorest and most vulnerable are taken care of.”

Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Focus on Youngest, Neediest Endures


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