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Head Start began as an eight-week summer demonstration program in 1965, a small part of a larger antipoverty effort of the Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) administration. The program was created to promote school readiness by enhancing the cognitive and social development of low-income children through provision, to such children and their families, of health, educational, nutritional, social, and other services that are determined, based on family needs assessment, to be necessary. Low-income children are those who come from families whose annual income falls below official poverty thresholds, although up to 10 percent of Head Start participants in local groups are allowed to come from families who do not meet the low-income criterion. Head Start is one of the few antipoverty measures that has enjoyed continued bipartisan political support in the U.S. Congress, and by 1975 what became known as the National Head Start Association was formally organized as an advocacy group for the program. Head Start operates full-day (six hours per day for four or five days per week year round) in about 50 percent of its local programs, with many service options. Although Head Start has served families with children three years of age and under in some programs since 1967, in 1995 the Early Head Start program awarded the first formal grants for birth-to-age-three services.
By the early 2000s Head Start had served about nineteen million children since its inception. In 1968 Head Start began funding a program that eventually was called Sesame Street, a Carnegie Corporation preschool television show. During its 2004 fiscal year Head Start enrolled nearly 906,000 children. Of these, 52 percent were fouryear-olds, another 34 percent were three-year-olds, and another 9 percent were under three years of age; 31.2 percent were Hispanic, 31.1 percent were black, and 26.9 percent were white; and 12.7 percent had physical or mental disabilities. The average cost per child was $7,222, for a total cost of nearly $6.1 billion.
Although Head Start is a federal program, it is administered through the states and operated by local public and private for-profit and not-for-profit agencies. Hence, there is a great diversity of programs across the country and within states, thereby making difficult efforts to evaluate how well Head Start “works” in the nation as a whole. A national reporting system was created only in 2002, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued its first Head Start impact report in 2005. Data based on that reporting system indicate that Head Start children achieve a 38 percent gain in letter recognition and improved prewriting skills, but they still lag behind their more advanced peers at entry into kindergarten and such gains are likely to dissipate over time. One regional study reported in 2000 by Sherri Oden and others found that girls who attended Head Start in Florida in 1970 to 1971 were significantly more likely to graduate high school or earn a GED (95% versus 81%) and significantly less likely to be arrested at age twenty-two (5% versus 15%) than were girls in the non–Head Start comparison group.
Two studies by Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas relied on national-level data to examine the effects of Head Start participants. Their 1995 study showed that Head Start was associated with significant gains in test scores among both whites and African Americans, but that African Americans quickly lost those gains. Head Start also reduced the probability that whites would repeat a grade, but no such effect was found for African Americans. In their 2000 study, Currie and Thomas again reported that test scores “faded out” more quickly for black children than for white children, but they also showed that black children who attended Head Start were more likely to attend schools of worse quality than other black children. No such pattern was found for white children. These results suggested that the “fade out” effects for black Head Start children may be due to the inferior schools they attend.
A long-term study based on national-level survey data reported by Richard Caputo in 2003 indicated that Head Start children had the lowest income to poverty ratios between 1985 and 1998 (2.6 versus 3.3 for nonpreschoolers and 3.8 for other preschoolers). In regard to economic mobility between 1985 and 1998, both Head Starters and other preschoolers had statistically similar and greater upward mobility (0.67 and 0.51 deciles respectively) than did nonpreschoolers (0.16 deciles). These findings, however, should be interpreted cautiously given the lack of experimental controls. More rigorous studies with random assignment into experimental and control groups are necessary to provide more definitive knowledge about both the short-term and long-term effects of Head Start.
- Bennett, W. Steven, and Jason T. Hustedt. 2005. Head Start’s Lasting Benefits. Infants & Young Children 18 (1): 16–24.
- Caputo, Richard K. 2003. Head Start, Other Pre-school Programs, & Life Success in a Youth Cohort. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 30 (2): 105–126.
- Caputo, Richard K. 2004. The Impact of Intergenerational Head Start Participation on Success Measures among Adolescent Children. Journal of Economic and Family Issues 25 (2): 199–223.
- Currie, Janet, and Duncan Thomas. 1995. Does Head Start Make a Difference? American Economic Review 85 (3): 341–364.
- Currie, Janet, and Duncan Thomas. 2000. School Quality and the Longer-Term Effects of Head Start. Journal of Human Resources 35 (4): 755–774.
- Oden, Sherri, Lawrence J. Schweinhart, David P. Weikart, et al. Into Adulthood: A Study of the Effects of Head Start. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2004. Biennial Report to Congress: The Status of Children in Head Start Programs. Arlington, VA: National Head Start Training and Technical Assistance Resource Center.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2005. Head Start Impact Study: First Year Findings, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Author. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/ programs/opre/hs/impact_study/.
- Zigler, Edward, and Susan Muenchow. 1992. Head Start: The Inside Story of America’s Most Successful Educational Experiment. New York: Basic Books.
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