Head Start: Back to the Beginning to Map out the Future

Post developed by Katie Brown in coordination with Maris Vinovskis

The recent sequester – or deep budget cuts to counter the national debt – has taken a toll on many public services, including the Head Start program. Head Start offers education, nutrition, and other services to children under five from low-income families.


Photo credit: Thinkstock

Center for Political Studies researcher, Professor of Public Policy, and Bentley Professor of History Maris Vinovskis is an expert on education programs. He was Research Adviser to the U.S. Office of Education and Research Improvement in both the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He served on the Congressionally mandated Independent Review Panels for Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind. He has also testified before six different House and Senate committees about education, as well as served as an evaluator of the Even Start Family Literacy Program, the National Education Goals, the National English Standards, and the National History Standards.

With an almost 50 year history, Vinovskis believes Head Start is both important and here to stay. Yet, he urges a critical look at the trajectory of Head Start in order to determine best practices.

In his book The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Vinovskis traces the origins of the program. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed two key changes in societal views. First, perceptions of IQ shifted from fixed at birth to partially determined by early childhood. Second, poverty came to be seen as a crucial problem. Together, these views led to a perceived need for early childhood learning opportunities for the poor. And the Federal government answered the call, beginning under John F. Kennedy and continuing under Lyndon B. Johnson.

Rolled out in 1965 by the Office of Economic Opportunity, and part of the larger War on Poverty and Great Society programs, Head Start catered to 100,000 children amid bipartisan support.  Initially an eight-week summer program, the next wave – launched later that year – featured a year-round model. This created many jobs but, without enough qualified teachers, local parents and community members were frequently hired.

Initial evaluations of the program were disheartening, as children participating in Head Start demonstrated no lasting effects of participation. Critics noted the lack of qualified teachers and suggested eight weeks was too short of a time span. Yet support for Head Start as important remained strong. Several government task forces called for higher quality and additional programs to build on Head Start. Project Follow Through was developed under the Johnson administration to transition Head Start kids into schools. During the nearly three decades of Project Follow Through, the Federal government spent about 3 billion dollars (in constant 2010 dollars) to improve Head Start. But Project Follow Through failed its objectives, which may be attributable in part to the continued lack of coordination of Head Start with elementary schools. Project Follow Through faced termination in 1995. But Head Start continues today.

In looking to the future of Head Start, what can we learn from the history of Head Start, particularly its earlier years? Vinovskis supports the original goals of the program because providing better education to disadvantaged children is crucial. But, he notes that the program may better do so if considered as part of public education, which would in turn bring better qualified teachers. Further, he stresses the need to focus more of the Federal support for early childhood programs on children from the most economically disadvantaged families.

Yet, the most successful models are also the most expensive. For example, the HighScope Perry Preschool approach, pioneered in Ypsilanti, Michigan, utilizes high quality education principles to develop children’s innate talents with the help of teachers and families. A study finds that a group of 3-4 year-olds who participated decades ago earn more, attain higher education, are more likely to be employed, and commit fewer crimes than their peers at age 40. Likewise, Finland offers universal, full day preschool – and ranks above the U.S. in reading, math, and science aptitude.

While this time of sequester limits the budget for Head Start, it also underscores the importance of utilizing best practices to make every dollar count.

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