History and Overview of the Head Start Program

Stimulated in part by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, compensatory education sought to compensate for disadvantage background of improve the performance of low-achieving students, particularly those from low-income families. Compensatory education was funded largely by the federal government, although some states and local school districts also set aside funds for this purpose. The enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), a program related to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” increased federal financial involvement. Whereas the NDEA emphasized science and mathematics, the ESEA was a federal response to the significant social change taking place in American society. Despite the Brown decision of 1954, many African American students as well as other minorities, especially in inner-city areas, were educationally disadvantaged because of social and economic conditions. Stressing educational innovations, the ESEA encouraged special programs for children of low-income families and funded pilot programs to supplement the offerings of local school districts. Johnson’s “Great Society,” especially through ESEA and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, created a range of early intervention programs for economically and culturally disadvantaged children. Known as Operation Head Start, these programs had an impact on early childhood education not only for minority children but for all children (Graham, 10-34; 47-79; Zigler & Valentine 11-59).

In the 1960s, as leaders of the civil rights movement fought to reduce the exclusion of minority groups, emphasis shifted from the stress on assimilation to a stress on diversity and cultural pluralism. In place of the term “melting pot,” the concept of cultural pluralism introduced new terms, such as a “tossed salad” or a “mosaic” that allow for distinctive group characteristics within a larger whole. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE): cultural pluralism is more than a temporary accommodation to placate racial and ethnic minorities. It is a concept that aims toward a heightened sense of being and of wholeness of the entire society based on the unique strengths of each of its parts. (No One Model American, 1972, p. 7)

Efforts to contribute to constructive cultural pluralism through education include multicultural intervention approaches that take account of student learning styles, recognize differences in dialect, provide for bilingual education, and introduce methods and materials involving multiethnic curriculum and instruction. These interventions help improve the performance of economically disadvantaged minority students and contribute to the attainment of a productive pluralistic society. Desegregation, compensatory education, multicultural education, and education for students with disabilities center on the goal of providing equal educational opportunity for all students (Ramey & Ramey 109-120; Zigler & Valentine 35-57).

Several important events of the 1970s had a direct effect on schooling. Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination against women in education programs receiving federal assistance. This legislation, and later acts such as the Women’s Educational Equity Act of 1974, evolved out of the extension of the civil rights movement to incorporate women’s rights and concerns. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142). Like Head Start, the act improved opportunities for a group of children who had previously lacked full access to a quality education. The new law established a national policy that children with handicaps would receive an appropriate public education. An important provision of the law was that, whenever possible, students with handicaps were to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms (Knowlton & Malanax 199-314).

In principle, Head Start should improve the long-term outcomes of its participants. The development of cognitive and noncognitive (for example, motivation) skills during the preschool years can impact later success or failure in school. Success in school then impacts success in the labor market. In addition, Heckman argues that investments in disadvantaged children are superior to investments in low-skill adults both because the rate of return on investments in the children is higher since less human capital has been invested in them and because the time horizon over which returns will accrue is longer for the children (Heckman 1411-41).

As a whole children who attend Head Start are disadvantaged. Head Start guidelines require that 90 percent of the participants in a Head Start program come from families that live below the poverty line. In most Head Start programs, the percentage that meets this criterion exceeds 90 percent. Caputo finds that the longer that the child’s family has spent in poverty, the more likely that child is to be enrolled in Head Start (Caputo 1-22). Lee and colleagues show that prior to participation, children who are enrolled in Head Start are poorer, have lower score on cognitive assessments, and are more likely to live in single-parent households than nonparticipant children of the same age who live in the same disadvantaged neighborhood (Lee et al. 495-507).

It is likely that the same underlying factors that cause families to be poor, and eligible for Head Start, also affect children’s outcomes and that at least some of these factors will be unobservable. Among eligible families, unobservable characteristics may determine which families enroll their children in Head Start. Without controlling for these unobservable characteristics, estimates of the effect of Head Start on children’s outcomes will be biased. The bias may work in either direction depending on the effect the unobservables have on the children’s outcomes. For instance, if poor parents who are most concerned about their children’s outcomes enroll their children in Head Start, the effect of Head Start on the children will be overestimated because the Head Start indicator will also be picking up the high-level of concern about the child, which is presumably beneficial. In contrast, if the most disadvantaged of eligible children are selected to participate in Head Start, the effect that Head Start has on children will be underestimated because these children will have a greater lack of skills and of resources for which Head Start attempts to compensate (Ramey & Ramey 109-120; Zigler & Valentine 21-48).

The model programs include the Perry Preschool Project, the Early Training Project, and the Abecedarian Project. In general, these studies indicate that compensatory preschool is associated with fewer grade repetitions, fewer arrests, lower high school dropout rates, and greater cognitive attainment. The model preschool programs, however, differ from Head Start in crucial ways. They were funded at higher levels, intervened in the participants’ home environments more intensively, had better trained staffs, and lower student-staff ratios (Schweinhart 12-35). In their review of studies of compensatory education programs, Ramey and Ramey generalize that programs that begin early in development, that are long in duration, and that are intensive (low student-staff ratios, well-trained staffs) tend to bring significant improvements in the participants’ outcomes. Head Start is neither long in duration nor intensive. Consequently, the findings based on these projects may not be applicable to Head Start (Ramey & Ramey 109-120).

Recent work finds little evidence of a relationship between Head Start and adult outcomes in a sample that pools white and African-American respondents. In contrast, when the models are estimated separately for subsamples of white and African-American respondents, Head Start participation is found to increase the probability of completing high school for whites, to increase the probability of attending college for whites, and to decrease the probability of criminal charges or convictions for African-Americans. Racial differences in the impact of Head Start may result because of systematic differences by race across the Head Start programs or the schools attended after leaving Head Start (Currie & Thomas, 1995, 341-363; 2000, 755-774). In fact, Currie and Thomas find that black children who attended Head Start attend schools where average eighth grade test scores are lower than those at schools attended by nonattendee black children. In addition, the youth who attend Head Start may go on to attend poor schools and have disadvantaged peers. Both of which may negatively affect outcomes in teenage years, including suspension from school. As mentioned above, Currie and Thomas provide some support for this explanation as to why Head Start may not bring long-term gains to its participants (Currie & Thomas, 1995, 341-363; 2000, 755-774).

Overall, Head Start has proved to be viable for children. It has energized tens of thousands of Americans to educate themselves and to escape poverty. It has been successful for three main reasons: (1) It allows for local initiatives on the kind of programs communities want; (2) By involving parents, it is not seen as interfering with family prerogatives, but rather as providing family assistance; and (3) by incorporating parents and other community people as volunteers, it builds its own lobby that can take action when future administrations threaten cuts or major changes in the program (Zigler & Valentine 21-48). Head Start has given many families a hand up and can continue to provide that boost, if the nation truly believes in the value of all families as well as in family values and is willing to help those families. Head Start is arguable the best investment America has ever made in its youngest citizens.


Button, W. (1983). and E. Provenzo, Jr. History of education and culture in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Caputo, Richard K. “Head Start, Poor Children, and Their Families.” Journal of Poverty: 1-22, 1998.

Currie, Janet, and Duncan Thomas. “Does Head Start Make a Difference?” American Economic Review 85(3): 341-64, 1995.

Currie, Janet, and Duncan Thomas. “School Quality and the Longer-Term Effects of Head Start.” Journal of Human Resources 35(4):755-74, 2000.

Graham, H. (1984). The uncertain triumph: Federal education policy in the Kennedy and Johnson years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Heckman, James J., and James R. Walker. “The Relationship between Wages and Income and the Timing of Spacing of Births: Evidence from Swedish Longitudinal Data.” Econometrica 58(6): 1411-41, 1990.

Knowlton, E., & Mulanax, D. “Education Programs for Parents and Families of Children and Youth with Developmental Disabilities.” In M. J. Fine & S. W. Lee (Eds.), Handbook of Diversity in Parent Education (pp. 299-314). New York: Academic Press, 2001.

Lee, Valerie E., Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Elizabeth Schnur, Fong-Ruey Liaw. “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, 1990.

No one model American: A statement of multicultural education. (1972). Washington DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Ramey, Craig T., and Sharon A. Ramey. “Early Intervention and Early Experience.” American Psychologist 53(2):109-20, 1998.

Schweinhart, Lawrence J., Helen V. Barnes, and David P. Weikart. Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27. Ypsilanti, Mich.: The High/Scope Press, 1993.

Zigler, Edward and Jeanette Valentine. Eds. Project Head Start: A Legacy of War on Poverty. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

9 − four =