What's Ahead for Head Start?

The Head Start Series in PDF

Many thanks to everyone who has provided comments on our seven-part series on Head Start and to those of you who participated in our web chat on Tuesday. 

For your convenience, we've combined all of the posts plus the chat transcript into a PDF document for easy reading. Keep the feedback coming!

Where is Head Start Heading? Three Potential Tracks

This is the final post in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org in partnership with Politico.com. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling.  

We started this series with a train metaphor, describing early education programs as trains moving down various tracks to deliver children to elementary school ready and eager to learn. More than a decade ago, when a few states started developing new paths for publicly funded preschool, the tracks already laid by Head Start seemed outdated and distant from what states were constructing. The unspoken, yet as it turns out, overstated, assumption was that state pre-K was aiming for literacy and kindergarten readiness, while Head Start was pointed toward children's health and social well-being.

The Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start


Sept. 8: Competing, Collaborating and Evolving
Sept. 9: Seeking Signs of Change Since 2007
Sept. 11: Checking Assumptions on School Readiness
Sept. 15: A Tilt Toward Literacy
Sept 17: The Case for 'Comprehensive Services'
Today: The Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start
Sept. 21: Future Tracks
Sept. 22: Web chat (email us your questions)

This is the sixth post in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling. 

Head Start may be about to turn 45. But you could argue that it's younger than ever.

Though many people think of Head Start as a program aimed at 4-year-olds, it actually enrolls children at 3 and 4 in the hopes of immersing them in two full years of early childhood services before their arrival in kindergarten. Lately, Head Start's enrollment has started to shift, serving an increasing proportion of 3-year-olds and a decreasing proportion of 4-year-olds. In 2008, 3-year-olds comprised 36 percent of Head Start's enrollment, up from 28 percent in 2006. At the same time, enrollment of 4-year-olds dropped to 50 percent from 56 percent over those two years.

In 1995, when Early Head Start was introduced, the program started to reach for even younger children -- targeting infants, toddlers and pregnant mothers. With the influx of stimulus money, the number of children and pregnant mothers served by Early Head Start programs is set to nearly double in size -- with money available to serve 117,000 babies and pregnant mothers instead of the 62,000 participating last year.

Could these new growth areas lead Head Start to become known as the program for pre-preschoolers? Are we witnessing the Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start, a program getting younger with each passing year?

The Case for 'Comprehensive Services'

This is the fifth post in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling. 

Last year Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri stirred up a storm of criticism when he said that Head Start "has been the biggest waste of money" and needs to "get into the early education business" instead.

His comment said a lot -- not only about his own misunderstandings of the program, but about how Head Start is perceived in the outside world. Many mistakenly believe that Head Start isn't doing a good enough job of preparing children to succeed in school because it has devoted too much energy to providing health, nutrition and parent-involvement services. 

A Tilt Toward Literacy

This is the fourth in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling.

What a difference a decade makes. Ask experienced Head Start teachers and administrators about how things have changed over the past 10 to 15 years, and many of them will talk about differences in how, or whether, they taught the A, B, Cs or even posted the letters on their classroom walls.  "I was forbidden to teach letters," wrote teacher J.M. Holland just this week in an Early Ed Watch post reflecting on his experience in 1995.

Leery of putting undue attention on literacy instruction, Head Start's proponents have always argued that a comprehensive approach to supporting young children's development is the strategy most likely to yield long-term learning gains for the impoverished youngsters Head Start serves. Head Start was designed at the outset to promote the development of the whole child, mentally, socially, cognitively and physically. It is a program that offers health services -- including dental screening, nutrition, and other services that alleviate the effects of poverty -- as well as education.

Checking Assumptions About School Readiness

This is the third in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling.

Head Start children have been the subject of hundreds of studies over the program's 44 years in existence. So you might expect policymakers to have a solid understanding of whether the program is good at preparing kids for school. Not so.

Lately, when one asks about school readiness, the answer depends on who is doing the answering. In general, most people assume that Head Start helps poor kids get ready for school. After all, the program has survived for decades, so they figure it must be doing something right. But conventional wisdom among conservatives and school reformers is altogether different. They question the program's effectiveness and wonder if money is being well spent.

Seeking Signs of Change Since Head Start's 2007 Reauthorization

This is the second post in our seven-part series, "What's Ahead for Head Start?"  Join us here for a web chat on this topic on Sept. 22, 2009 at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

More than 18 months have passed since the laws governing Head Start got their most recent make-over. The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, which President Bush signed into law in December 2007, includes several major reforms to the Head Start program, most of them designed to improve the program's quality and accountability.

What is the impact of these changes? Agencies are hiring more teachers with post-secondary degrees, as required by the law. But data does not yet exist to help us detect other signs of quality and accountability improvement. Some of the law's deadlines are still years away and some requirements went unfunded until this year. At least one initiative is already months behind schedule.

Head Start and State Pre-K: Competing, Collaborating and Evolving

Today we begin a multi-week blog series, reported by Lisa Guernsey and Christina Satkowski, on the future of Head Start. Join us here at Early Ed Watch for a Web chat about the series on September 22nd at 12:30 p.m., hosted in partnership with Politico.com.

Head Start, the largest federally funded program for children under 5, has been offering free preschool and health services to poor children and their families for nearly 45 years. It has seen growth and stagnation, controversy and quiet. Today, with the Obama Administration signaling its intent to increase federal funding to support young children, one might think that Head Start was poised to enter one of its most expansive periods ever.

But there are several huge unanswered questions about Head Start's future. In recent years, parents and politicians have found themselves drawn instead to state-funded pre-K programs. Indeed, by 2008, more children at ages 3 and 4 were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs than in Head Start. State programs enroll about 1.1 million preschoolers, while Head Start serves about 920,000 in that age range.* As Georgetown University researcher William Gormley wrote last year, "A silent revolution in early childhood has occurred."