Celebrating Head Start at 50: How Lessons from Head Start Can Inform an Agenda for America’s Poor Children

Signed into law by President Johnson on May 18, 1965, Head Start celebrated its 50th anniversary early this week. When I had the chance to speak about the anniversary at April’s National Head Start Association conference, I learned that since its inception, Head Start has reached over 32 million low-income children and their families, touching them powerfully with its comprehensive learning experiences and services.

After all these years of accomplishment and debate, what is there new to say about Head Start? Perhaps surprisingly, researchers do have new information, as they reanalyze decades of studies to mark the 50th anniversary and conduct new analyses that take advantage of up-to-the-minute data. A careful re-analysis of a recent and large-scale random assignment study of Head Start finds that cognitive effects lasting into the early elementary years are greatest for English language learners. And an essay by the distinguished social scientist Christopher Jencks reviewing the evidence of Head Start’s long-term effects in a short-term political culture concludes that, “Had parents not embraced Head Start, we might well have abolished it before we discovered that, in important ways, it worked.”

But just as important as the direct effect of Head Start on more than 30 million babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and their families are the lessons it teaches us. From its inception, Head Start built on the insight that the early years of a child’s life, before talking or reading or formal schooling, matter greatly to success in education and in life–an insight that once was counter-intuitive but has been powerfully confirmed by brain research in the decades since. And the program also constitutes a two-generational policy framework because at the heart of the Head Start model are strategies that tackle issues facing poor parents—through dedicated family support workers and home visitors in addition to opportunities for parents to participate in decision making and advance their own careers—as well as providing an education for their children. The voice of Head Start has particularly mattered in countering the myths about poor parents that too often hamper U.S. policy, as well as modeling two-generational support services for children and families. Despite the myth that poor parents don’t care about their children’s education, for example, I remember visiting a Head Start program for migrant workers where parents who had spent all day in the fields still devoted volunteer time to their children’s Head Start program. 

Another Head Start lesson comes from its grounding not only in the War on Poverty but also in the civil rights movement. Anchoring Head Start is the belief that all children, including children of color, deserve the opportunity to succeed and that as a country we must work harder to reach those children and families who are marginalized and who face social and economic barriers. As a result, Head Start throughout its history has reached black children, Native American children, and other children of color. Today, about 36 percent of Head Start children are Latino, and Head Start is a leader in research and practice innovations to help young children who are dual language learners succeed in school and beyond.

Over its 50 years, Head Start programs nationwide have dedicated themselves to continuous improvement, applying lessons from both research and practice—consistent with the program’s earliest designation as a “national laboratory.” One of the proudest moments in my own career came from just such an innovation—the creation of Early Head Start in the Head Start reauthorization that was signed into law 21 years ago, on May 18, 1994, when I served as Commissioner for the Administration of Children, Youth, and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Early Head Start was created in response to growing evidence about the crucial role that the earliest months and years of life play in young children’s development, and it represents the nation’s first large-scale venture into top-quality early learning and comprehensive services for babies and toddlers and their families. It was designed through an expert committee of researchers and practitioners and—while still reaching far too few young children—has recently been expanded by the Obama administration through the Early Head Start–Child Care partnership initiative. 

For 50 years, Head Start has stood for a vision of the United States as a nation that sees promise in all young children, including those in the poorest families; that reaches out across barriers of race, ethnicity, and income to make that promise real; and that invests in the high-quality educational and comprehensive services that research and experience tell us are needed to improve children’s lives. Unfortunately, however, our country hasn’t lived up to that vision. Today, 22 percent of children under the age of five are still poor and 41 percent live in low-income families. Moreover, children of color are disproportionately represented in those populations. Yet even though all of these children are our future, investment in their well-being has stalled—with Head Start reaching just 4 percent of all poor babies and toddlers and 45 percent of poor preschoolers, while struggling families just above the poverty line have even less access to high-quality early learning programs. 

In fact, we now risk an actual disinvestment in these children, as reflected in the House and Senate budget proposals. Despite the bipartisan consensus that early childhood education and support matter, there is no consensus that we must make an investment to deliver that education and support. For example, the White House calculates that the Congressional spending targets for the key domestic spending bill that funds Head Start would leave Head Start serving 35,000 fewer children in 2016, and the budget resolution also would fund domestic programs in future years at levels that would serve 157,000 fewer children in Head Start the following year, due to the resolution’s proposed additional cuts on top of the already-reduced 2017 budget levels that are mandated by sequestration. Other early care and education programs have already seen cutbacks, with spending on child care subsidies through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) at an 11-year low.

So, what can we do from here? We must seek a different future, drawing from the lessons of research and experience over the past 50 years and also telling stories about the power of Head Start. First, those who know families well, including Head Start caregivers as well as parents, early childhood policy and practice experts, and advocates, need to tell the story about the potential of these children and families—how much they have to offer and how terribly misguided it would be for our country not to invest in them. Failing to ensure success for all young children in struggling families would be a great loss and great disservice not only to the children and families themselves, but also to our nation and economy as a whole–given our reality that more than 4 in 10 young children live in low-income families and almost half are children of color. Second, we need to tell the story about success, as seen both by researchers and parents–and about the hard work, persistence, and commitment to continuous improvement that underlies that success. Even when Congress shuts down the government—failing to do its job—deeply committed Head Start teachers, directors, and other staff stay focused on doing their job and doing it well. Finally, we need to tell the story of what it takes to achieve high quality for both generations, and in particular, the resources required to support and train teachers, link families to services, take on other challenges that impede learning, and at the same time, reach out to far more children than we touch today.

Two-generational programs like Head Start deserve celebration on this day, and continued investment in the years to come.