How Effective are Head Start Programs?

Recent history has shown a marked increase in the government’s involvement in the lives and families of young children. Now more than ever early care and learning are topics of political debate and policy initiatives. Currently the field of early childhood education is experiencing the impacts of policy initiatives focused on “quality” and “school-readiness”. Many states have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems for their early childhood programs as a result of the Early Learning Challenge Fund grant program.

QRIS is relatively new to our field and there is little research about how it is being implemented and it is too new to examine outcomes. However, the federal government got involved in early care and education long ago when the Lyndon B. Johnson administration initiated the War on Poverty and began establishing Head Start programs in poverty-stricken cities around the country. Because Head Start has been around since the 1960’s there is a plethora of research available on the outcomes of this program. I am interested in examining how quality is determined in Head Start guidelines and how this federally funded program impacts children in the long-term.

The best way to examine the effectiveness of Head Start programming is to take a thorough review of the research that is available. The history of Head Start tells us that, prior to the reform measures enacted with the congressional reauthorization of Head Start in 1995, the quality of programming was poor. With this first round of reforms Head Start programs began to have basic quality standards, such as teacher education requirements, that have likely improved program outcomes. The major reform to come out of this legislation was the authorization of Early Head Start, a program that serves children ages 0-3. In 2007, the Head Start reauthorization included more significant reforms on teacher education standards. Now all Head Start teachers are required to have a BA in Early Childhood Education or a related field.


There is a frequent argument that occurs amongst congressional leaders each time Head Start is reauthorized. There is an arm of leadership that wishes to see Head Start devolved into state controlled programming. One of the research articles I read worked to address the issue of devolution by comparing the outcomes of Head Start programming to state funded universal pre-k programming. The article, called “Early Education Policy Alternatives: Comparing Quality and Outcomes of Head Start and State Prekindergarten” and published by researchers Henry, Gordon, and Rickman from Georgia State University, used several methods to determine both quality of programming and outcomes for children. As it turns out, the state funded programs turned out to demonstrate higher quality and better outcomes for children.

I chose to research Head Start programming for several reasons. First, I used to work in an Early Head Start school and I understand what works about the program as well as what does not work at all. Second, I am heavily involved in public policy in my state and I want to ensure that I have research-based reasoning behind the positions I take and the positions I attempt to influence public officials to take. I look forward to continuing to delve into more research on the outcomes of Head Start programming on children and families.

What are your thoughts on Head Start? Leave your comments here to get in on the conversation!



~ by vegucationmama on January 18, 2014.

One Response to “How Effective are Head Start Programs?”

  1. I am very interested in your research. I’m from Canada and live in the Netherlands. Neither country has a program like Head Start. I’m curious to hear what you find out about the program.

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