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Project Head Start

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Head Start is a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that focuses on assisting children from low-income families. Created in 1965, Head Start is the longest-running program for stopping the cycle of poverty in the United States. It provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. As of late 2005, more than 22 million pre-school aged children have participated in Head Start. The $6.8+ billion dollar budget for 2005 provided services to more than 905,000 children, 57% of whom were four years old or older, and 43% three years old or younger. Services were provided by 1,604 different programs operating more than 48,000 classrooms scattered across every state (and nearly every county) at an average cost of $7,222 per child. The paid staff of nearly 212,000 people is dwarfed by an army of volunteers six times as large.


Head Start was started as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. A key part of the Great Society domestic agenda, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 authorized programs to help meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. A panel of child development experts drew up this program at the request of the Federal Government, and the program became Project Head Start.

The Office of Economic Opportunity launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The project was designed to help end poverty by providing preschool children from low-income families with a program that would meet emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs.

Head Start was then transferred to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services) by the Nixon Administration in 1969. Today it is a program within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the HHS. Programs are administered locally by non-profit organizations and local education agencies such as school systems. Head Start is a program for children age 3 to 5 in the United States.


  • Early Head Start - promotes healthy prenatal outcomes, promotes healthy family functioning, and strengthens the development of infants and toddlers beginning as young as newborn infants.
  • Head Start- helps to create healthy development in low-income children. Programs offer a wide variety of services, that depend on a child's and each family's heritage and experience, to influence all aspects of a child's development and learning.
  • Migrant and Seasonal Program Branch- provides the children of migrant and seasonal farm workers who meet income and other eligibility guidelines with Head Start services
  • American Indian-Alaska Native Program Branch- provides American Indian and Alaska Native children and families with services such as: health care, educational, nutritional, socialization, as well as other services promoting school readiness. Services are primarily for disadvantaged preschool children, and infants and toddlers.


  • Eligibility- Eligibility for Head Start services is largely income-based (100% of the federal poverty level), though each locally-operated program includes other eligibility criteria such as disabilities and services to other family members. As of late 2006, up to 10% of any funded program's enrollment can be from over-income families.
  • Disabilities- All programs provide full services to children with disabilities
  • Education- The goal of Head Start is to ensure that those children enrolled in the program are ready to begin school. Educational standards are fully outlined in national performance standards which, over the years, have become the de facto standards for high-quality pre-school education programs.
  • Family and Community Partnerships- both groups involved in operation, governance and evaluation of the program. Both groups make vital contributions.
  • Health- health is seen as an important factor in a child's ability to thrive and develop. Program provides screenings to evaluate a child's overall health, then help to ensure regular health check-ups, including dental care. All Head Start programs espouse and teach good practices in oral health, hygiene, nutrition, personal care, and safety.
  • Program Management and Operations- "focus on delivering high-quality child development services to children from low-income families."


The long term effectiveness of Head Start is controversial. Set out below are a number of critical and positive reports or statements on Head Start. In light of the controversy, Congress commissioned an Impact Statement, which is discussed below.

Reports and statements critical of Head Start

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of Freakonomics, conclude that Head Start participation has no lasting effect on test scores in the early years of school, [Media:based on regression analysis of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics, and Fryer come to the same conclusion in one 2004 paper they wrote.[1]

Another issue has been that according to the most widely cited source supporting Head Start, children who finish the program and are placed into disadvantaged schools perform worse than their peers by second grade. Only by continuing to isolate these children (such as dispersing and sending them to better-performing school districts) can the gains be captured. Source from: Administrative History of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Vol. I, p.252, Box 1, LBJ Library.

Reports and statements with mixed reviews of Head Start

Magnuson, Ruhm, and Waldfogel (2004) [2] conclude that Early education does increase reading and mathematics skills at school entry], but it also boosts children's classroom behavioral problems and reduces their self-control. Further, for most children the positive effects of pre-kindergarten on skills largely dissipate by the spring of first grade, although the negative behavioral effects continue."

However, the study also found that, in contrast to the general population in pre-kindergarten, disadvantaged children and those attending schools with "low levels of academic instruction" get the largest and most lasting academic gains from early education.

Currie and Thomas (1995) [3] try to control for many family background factors. The analysis is based on within-family data, comparing children in Head Start with their siblings who were not in Head Start. Also, mothers who were themselves enrolled in Head Start were compared to their adult sisters who were not. Currie and Thomas analyzed groups separately by ethnicity: White, Black and Hispanic. White children, who were the most disadvantaged, showed larger and longer lasting improvements than African-American children.

Reports and statements supportive of Head Start

According to Datta (Datta, 1976 & Lee et al.,1990) who summarized 31 studies, the program showed immediate improvement in the IQ scores of participating children, though after beginning school, the non-participants were able to narrow the difference. Children who attended Head Start are, relative to their siblings who did not, significantly more likely to complete high school, attend college, and possibly have higher earnings in their early twenties. They are less likely to have been booked or charged with a crime.[1] Head Start is associated with large and significant gains in test scores. Head Start significantly reduces the probability that a child will repeat a grade.[2] Recent criticisms of Project Head Start have resulted in plans to improve program services and to expand in a more thoughtful manner to make the program more responsive to the needs of children and families. New directions include expansion below and beyond the ages previously served by Head Start.[3]

Congressional Impact Study

Congress mandated an intensive study of the effectiveness of Head Start, the "Head Start Impact Study", which has issued a series of reports on the design and study of a target population of 5000 3- and 4- year old children. [4] The Head Start Impact Study First Year Findings were released in June of 2005, and the Executive Summary is available from Health and Human Services.[5] The study participants, beginning in fall 2002, were assigned to either the headstart program or other parent-selected community resources. Thus, the study measured Head Start's effectiveness as compared to a variety of other forms of community support and educational intervention, as opposed to comparing Head Start to a non-intervention alternative.

The results of the first report showed consistent small to moderate advantages to children from participating in Head Start programs rather than other programs, with a few areas where no advantage was reported. The benefits improved with early participation and varied among racial and ethnic groups. The full report provides significant detail and support.


  1. Longer-Term Effects of Head Start Eliana Garces, Duncan Thomas, Janet Currie The American Economic Review, Vol. 92, No. 4 (Sep., 2002), pp. 999-1012
  2. Does Head Start Make a Difference? Janet Currie, Duncan Thomas The American Economic Review, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Jun., 1995), pp. 341-364
  3. Head Start: Criticisms in a Constructive Context. Zigler, Edward; Styfco, Sally J. American Psychologist, v49 n2 p127-32 Feb 1994

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