Early Childhood

Head Start at 20

By Anne Bridgman — May 08, 1985 19 min read
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In the summer of 1965, half a million disadvantaged children between the ages of 3 and 7 helped the federal government test a promising idea in the war against poverty: that children who lacked the basic medical, emotional, nutritional, or educational attention needed to perform well in school would benefit from a comprehensive preschool experience that combined these elements.

In what has since been called “the country’s biggest peace-time mobilization of human resources and effort,” President Lyndon B. Johnson’s newly created Office of Economic Opportunity launched that July a project providing such an experience for children in 2,350 communities across the nation.

The experimental six- and eight-week learning programs employed not only the services of full- and part-time teachers, social-service agencies, and professional medical personnel, but also the talent and dedication of parents and community volunteers.

The undertaking, known as Project Head Start, was greeted in some quarters with skepticism because of its “idealism” and “hasty organization.” But Newsweek magazine called it “the most promising foray” in Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

Today, 20 years and several Administrations later, the promising foray has become a political institution, sustained by a public appeal shared by few other Great Society initiatives.

Full-year Head Start programs have replaced the original summer programs and now operate routinely with community support in every state and territory. Some 9 million children and their families have been served by the program, and its proposed fiscal 1986 budget of $1.075 billion, though less than supporters say is needed, dwarfs the original federal outlay of $85 million.

Even the Reagan Administration, amid its budget-cutting victories of 1981, was forced by public and Congressional pressure to back away from a plan to make Head Start part of a block grant with reduced funding.

‘Disarm the Curmudgeons’

The architects of Project Head Start, interviewed by Education Week on the eve of the program’s 20th anniversary, say they are not surprised by the continuing public favor.

“I felt the program could become popular as well as effective,” says Sargent Shriver, the oeo’s first director. “It had the capacity to disarm the curmudgeons of the world.” It is difficult to argue that poverty results from being “slothful, lazy, drug-addicted, or incompetent,” adds Mr. Shriver, “when the object of your argument is a 5-year-old child.”

Robert E. Cooke, a physician who served as chairman of the original Head Start planning committee, says Head Start’s political success was a natural consequence of its sound foundation.

“It makes such good sense,” says Dr. Cooke, now A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Robert Warner Rehabilitation Center at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo.

The “good sense” of providing some form of early intervention in the lives of poor or neglected children was apparent to him, Mr. Shriver says, almost from the day in 1964 when President Johnson named him to head the new oeo

The office had been authorized under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, legislation that also created such programs as vista and the Job Corps and was, in President Johnson’s view, a way to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this nation by opening to everyone the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.”

“Since it was clear that something like 40 percent of the people who were poor in America were children under 15 years of age,” says Mr. Shriver, who now practices law in Washington, D.C., “it was obvious to me that you couldn’t genuinely say you were running a war against poverty if you weren’t doing something about children.”

Knowing precisely what to do about children, however, remained elusive, Mr. Shriver recalls today, until one evening, he remembered a longitudinal study he had read, showing that early intervention in the lives of poor, mentally retarded children had been successful in raising their I.Q.'s

“I was stunned at the time,” he says. “The study stuck in my mind, and I wondered if it might be applicable to non-retarded children.”

Planning Committee Set

In the fall of 1964, the former Peace Corps director named a panel of child-development experts, educators, and medical professionals to study the proposition and to plan a comprehensive early-intervention program for disadvantaged children. The panel members would be the early architects of Project Head Start.

Jule Sugarman, Head Start’s first deputy director and now vice president of Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, says the composition of that panel was a key influence in setting the philosophy and direction of the program.

“The committee was dominated by people who believed in the importance of the total environment,” Mr. Sugarman says. “If you had brought a group of public- and private-school superintendents together to plan it, I think it would have been a different program.”

The chairman, Dr. Cooke, then chief of pediatrics of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, remembers the panel’s charge: “to organize something that would attempt to break the cycle of poverty.”

“What we tried to visualize was a comprehensive child-development effort,” says Dr. Cooke. “That went far beyond simply preparing someone to do better in kindergarten; it went to the health of the child and the overall psychology.”

“So little had been done for these children,” he adds, “that, no matter what was done, it would be a vast improvement.”

‘Critical Point’ in Cycle

By January 1965, the committee had prepared a series of recommendations that later became the blueprint for Project Head Start. In that report, Dr. Cooke wrote: “There is considerable evidence that the early years of childhood are a most critical point in the poverty cycle. During these years, the creation of learning patterns, emotional development, and the formation of individuals’ expectations and aspirations take place at a very rapid pace. For the child of poverty, there are clearly observable deficiencies in these processes, which lay the foundation for a pattern of failure, and thus a pattern of poverty throughout the child’s entire life.”

A very enthusiastic President Johnson gave his endorsement to the panel’s report, Mr. Sugarman recalls, and appointed his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, honorary chairman of the program.

‘An Astounding Response’

The original plans for pilot-testing the program that summer included only 100 communities. But after letters to the nation’s school superintendents and health and welfare commissioners brought what Mr. Sugarman describes as “an astounding response,” oeo was forced to reconsider its approach.

The office decided to expand the project and sent government interns across the country that spring to find local agencies and individuals willing to run the summer programs with federal assistance.

“Because there was a visible Head Start center in almost every county in the country, it built tremendous political grassroots support,” says Mr. Sugarman. “That’s one of the reasons Head Start has survived so well.”

Another reason, Mr. Shriver contends, is the proven soundness over time of the planning committee’s original approach.

“It’s a testimony to the knowledge and experience of the people who put the program together,” he says, “that the ingredients from the first days of Head Start are still today the essential ingredients.”

Comprehensive and Flexible

Head Start was designed, say its planners, to be comprehensive enough to meet the multiple needs that are common to disadvantaged children, yet flexible enough to meet the special needs of individual children, families, and communities.

To provide such flexibility, the development and operation of Head Start centers were designed to be governed by local entities--public agencies, private and nonprofit organizations, and school systems, through grants from the community-education division of the oeo--and later from regional offices of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and, in some instances, from the Department’s Indian and Migrant Program Division.

An introductory booklet distributed to communities in 1965 recommended that a center’s daily activities include “group activities and individual work meant to meet the special needs of the children who have enrolled.” Essentially, it said, activities should “improve a child’s health, increase his understanding, and broaden his experiences.”

In 1975, hew published a set of “performance standards” for Head Start centers that set forth the four components considered essential to providing comprehensive services for children and their families. These are education, health, parental involvement, and social-service assistance.

Education. Head Start teachers--one for every 15 to 20 children--are taught to tailor the program’s curriculum to the child’s needs as well as the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the community. In the Head Start classroom, children are exposed to a variety of learning experiences meant to foster intellectual, social, and emotional growth.

The Head Start curriculum, more focused today than it was in 1965, introduces children to words and numbers, colors, shapes, animals, safety precautions, and other types of knowledge and awareness commonly assumed in their age group.

Head Start children are also encouraged to express their feelings and to interact with others to develop self-confidence.

Lori C. Robinson, now 25 and a Head Start teacher in Rockingham County, N.C., was one of the original 561,000 children participating in the summer Head Start programs of 1965. She remembers it as a time of “excitement,” with field trips to visit the fire department and the police station, bus and train rides, medical check-ups, and tales read aloud from storybooks.

It was all, she says, “a first-time experience,” and it helped her overcome her shyness and broaden her goals.

Disadvantaged youngsters, says a 1965 Head Start booklet, “need understanding, sensitive guidance, and skilled enrichment now, before they pay a needless price in school failure.” The booklet singled out a sense of humor as a helpful attribute for Head Start teachers. The most important quality, it said, was “warmth.”

Center staff members include: professional staff, such as teachers; volunteers, some of whom have special training; neighborhood residents, especially parents, who work as paid non-professionals or volunteers, either part- or full-time; and health professionals who donate their services to the program.

About one-third of the professional classroom staff members have degrees in early-childhood education or have earned a Child Development Associate (cda) credential. Another 16 percent are currently enrolled in cda training.

The cda program was initiated in 1972 because of mounting evidence that success in early-childhood-education programs is closely correlated to the quality of the teaching available.

In some localities, Head Start programs are specifically tailored to handicapped and bilingual students. Head Start also provides limited services to parents with infants and expectant parents. And in 1967, President Johnson endorsed Project Follow Through, a program for children in areas of acute poverty that would “follow them through” the early elementary grades to assure their adaptation to school.

Health. Because many children from low-income families have never seen a doctor of any kind, Head Start’s health-care component includes complete medical and dental examinations; screening for vision, hearing, and speech problems; psychological evaluations; immunizations; and treatment for identified health problems.

Statistics for the program’s first five years show that medical problems were found in 43 percent of the children enrolled.

The established link between nutrition and mental proficiency is the basis of Head Start’s meals program. Children attending receive a minimum of one hot meal and snack per day, meeting at least one-third of their daily nutritional needs. And parents are taught by trained nutritionists how to plan and prepare healthy meals at home.

Parental Involvement. The Head Start planning committee considered parental involvement one of the program’s most important components, according to Dr. Cooke. “We felt that the impact of Head Start as a brief exposure would not have any lasting benefit unless we altered the way the parents saw the child,” he says.

Today, says Helen Taylor, executive director of the National Day Care Program, which serves children in eight Head Start programs in Washington, D.C., “parental involvement is one of the program’s strongest benefits. Head Start parents can get involved totally with their children.”

Parents serve the centers in a variety of ways--from serving on parent-policy committees that work to develop budgets and administrative policy, to helping publish center newsletters and serving as classroom volunteers.

“It’s not just a program for children,” Ms. Taylor says. “We believe parents are the prime educators of their children.”

And research is showing that the educational involvement of Head Start parents continues. In a 1978 follow-up study, for example, 82 percent of the former Head Start parents surveyed said they had visited their child’s elementary school to meet with the teacher.

Moreover, some 29 percent of Head Start staff members nationwide are parents of current or former Head Start children, according to hhs For every four children enrolled in the program, the department says, there are at least three Head Start parents providing some form of volunteer service.

Social-Service Assistance. In a fourth component of the program, Head Start employs social-service coordinators to work with families, referring them to the appropriate local agencies for needed assistance.

A 1970 survey found, in fact, that the existence of Head Start programs in a community may have an impact on the provision of such assistance. In the 48 communities with Head Start programs surveyed, more than half had made 25 institutional changes consistent with Head Start goals. Among the changes cited were increased educational opportunities for the poor and minorities, better health services for children from low-income families, and greater use of low-income community members in community decisionmaking.

‘National Commitment’

In the 1965 White House ceremony at which he signed the legislation making Head Start a permanent part of the nation’s educational system, President Johnson called the program a symbol of “our national commitment to the goal that no American child shall be condemned to failure by the accident of birth.”

In 1969, the program, which by now served 663,600 children a year, was moved from the oeo to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Since then, it has become a program within the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services.

On the program’s 15th anniversary in 1980, a panel convened at President Carter’s request by the late Patricia Roberts Harris, then secretary of Health and Human Services, concluded that “Head Start’s successes are impressive.”

Program’s Critics

Nonetheless, Head Start has not lacked criticism during its 20-year history. Early press characterizations of the program as a way to help “backward” children from “crowded, repressive homes” made some local officials shy away from it.

In Mississippi, says Mr. Sugarman, most school officials refused to sponsor the early Head Start programs because of community opposition to integration.

Critics also charged that the program’s implementation had been hurried, with some 45,000 teachers taught about their jobs in one-week crash courses and with some towns given less than six weeks to determine how to qualify for the federal grants.

Today, Head Start still faces problems of identity, funding, and future growth. Problem areas cited in some recent federal and local evaluations of Head Start’s effectiveness include insufficient staffing, the failure to extend services to children (particularly younger ones) and families who could benefit from them, the unevenness of services offered in different localities, a failure to involve enough parents, un-realistic expectations and goals, and increasing bureaucratization.

“While Head Start clearly owes its existence to the idealism of the 1960’s,” notes a report by the 15th-anniversary committee, “it has sometimes been a victim of the period’s unrealistic expectations.”

Head Start’s comprehensive approach, the committee wrote, “has created confusion concerning which goal should take precedence--increasing children’s I.Q. scores and/or educational achievement, or improving their health and overall sense of well-being.” And the program’s focus on parental involvement, the panel noted, has led to questions about its identity--is it for children or for adults?

Finally, said the committee, the local flexibility that has been a key to Head Start’s success has also produced variations in programming that contribute to charges that the effort lacks sufficient “quality control.”

Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, the 15-year-old umbrella group that works to improve the program’s services, says the quality of Head Start is jeopardized most by inadequate funding.

“Even though Head Start has gotten an increase every year,” she notes, “it’s certainly far from the national norm in terms of meeting the cost-of-living increase.” Many programs, she says, have had to make cutbacks.

“Head Start has had a ‘Perils of Pauline’ existence,” acknowledges Edward F. Zigler, a member of the original planning committee who has been involved with the program for 20 years in various capacities and now directs the Bush Center in Early Childhood Development and Social Policy at Yale University. “It’s almost gone under several times.”

Yet, he says, “Any important decisionmaker who has ever seen Head Start, ever gotten close to it, has become a champion of the program because it has that kind of appeal.”

In particular, says Mr. Zigler, the work of Head Start parents has kept the program alive. “They lobby for this effort,” he says. “It’s a tribute to our country that economically disadvantaged people have been able to be a force, that Congress and the executive branch have listened.”

Research Findings Mixed

The program has experienced similarly mixed fortunes in terms of research. While most early-childhood experts today agree that early-intervention programs that are of high quality make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children, the findings about Head Start in its infancy were not consistently favorable.

In the late 1960’s, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio State University conducted a study comparing the performance of children in the country’s first 104 Head Start centers with that of children who were not enrolled in Head Start.

The Westinghouse Report, as it was called, concluded that the initial gains of Head Start children over non-Head Start children disappear after the first two or three years of elementary school. The finding was disproved by subsequent research, but the widespread reports of failure it had prompted damaged the project’s image.

“The research side of things almost destroyed us several times,” says Mr. Zigler. “And then it saved us in the end.”

Among the research studies that “saved” Head Start was one conducted by the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, which found that Head Start students were less likely to be in spe-cial-education classes later on than similar children who had not attended the program.

In 1983, the High Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Mich., found, after a 22-year longitudinal study of disadvantaged youths in preschool programs, that high-quality programs such as Head Start reduce the costs to society of special and remedial education, welfare, and criminal justice.

“On a wide range of measures of school and life success,” the High Scope study said, “young people who had attended a quality preschool program on average significantly outperformed youngsters who had not.’'

Evidence from a study of Head Start by the Children’s Defense Fund, a child-advocacy group in Washington, D.C., corroborates the Michigan study.

Head Start children, the cdf found, show lasting gains in school performance and achievement on standardized tests. They score higher than comparable non-Head Start children on preschool achievement tests that measure the cognitive abilities of young children. And they perform as well as or better than their peers when they enter public school, with fewer grade retentions and special-class placements.

Moreover, a 1980 study of Head Start by hhs pointed to “evidence of gains lasting as long as 13 years after the children’s Head Start or other preschool experience.”

“We watch the children grow socially, mentally, physically,” says Roberta Baines of Louisville, Ky., a Head Start aide since 1965 and a teacher in the program since 1967.

“You can tell the changes. To me, Head Start works.”

Looking to the Future

Last year, Head Start was reauthorized for two years under the Head Start Act of 1984.

After 20 years, it enrolls 448,250 children in full- and part-day programs. At least 90 percent of these children come from families who live below the federal poverty line of $9,300 for a family of four. Some 42 percent are black, 33 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, 4 percent American Indian, and 1 percent Asian. Handicapped children make up 10 to 12 percent of the program.

Yet, according to hhs, the program serves only 20 percent of the eligible low-income preschool children. And the cdf estimates that more than 1,000 American counties do not participate.

“Clearly, Head Start is an investment that pays off for children, for families, for communities, and for the nation,” says the cdf “Yet it reaches far too few of those who could benefit from its services.”

In 1980, hhs officials said that “as innovative and successful as the program has been, there are disturbing signs that inflation is endangering the quality of Head Start, with many programs already showing severe cutbacks in the staff, hours, and services offered.”

These problems notwithstanding, the friends of Project Head Start cite the program’s success over two decades of change as a reason to believe in its future.

“I think it’s the most successful social experiment of the 20th century,” says Dr. Cooke. “It has enjoyed success through a series of Administrations that haven’t always been enthusiastic about social programs. Its endorsement by this Administration at a time of major budget cuts is a testimony to its strength.

“Head Start hasn’t just succeeded,” he adds, “it has flourished.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 1985 edition of Education Week as Head Start at 20


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