Head Start is a U.S. federal program that provides education and social services to low-income three- to five-year-old children and their families. Head Start began as a summer program for about 500,000 children in 1965 and by the early twenty-first century served almost 1 million people annually in a mixture of school-year and full-year programs. Head Start's programming and politics reflects Lyndon Johnson's efforts to build the Great Society in the 1960s. Unlike other Great Society programs, a coalition emerged to ensure Head Start's survival and expansion.
Head Start developed out of two trends in particular. First, the emerging academic interest in "compensatory education for cultural deprivation" taught that government intervention early in children's lives could help children over-come what many expert-advocates considered inferior parenting by poor and minority families, especially women. Second, the New Left sought to build a movement focused on civil rights and community action that would enable oppressed communities to take over government and social service institutions.
Expert-advocates and civil rights activists fought over Head Start's treatment of the parents of children enrolled in the program. Expert-advocates tended to want to educate parents, while civil rights activists wanted to empower them, and Head Start centers around the country displayed elements of both sides' desires. After arguing since Head Start's inception in 1965, the two groups reached a compromise in 1970 that required Head Start centers to create Policy Councils with parent majorities.
Neither expert-advocates nor civil rights activists correctly predicted how parents would actually experience Head Start. Head Start helped create a stronger sense of community among poor parents, especially poor mothers. As a result, parents advocated for themselves and their children more with local institutions and became a crucial part of the Head Start coalition, lobbying politicians on its behalf. This political organizing began without central coordination and led to the creation of the National Head Start Association, which organizes parents and Head Start employees to lobby on Head Start issues.
Despite disagreements over parent involvement, expert-advocates, and civil rights activists united in distrust for public schools and in their desire to use Head Start to reform the public school system. Throughout its history, members of the Head Start community helped establish broader changes throughout public education, pushing expanded early childhood education, comprehensive services and parent involvement.
This tense but effective coalition of expert-advocates, civil rights activists, and parents helped Head Start survive an era marked by academic and political challenges to many Great Society programs, including some studies that questioned its effectiveness and a brief attempt by the Nixon administration to eliminate it. By the late 1970s and 1980s, the coalition was aided by emerging research demonstrating the lasting benefits of Head Start in children it served. Research found that children enrolled in Head Start were less likely than their peers to be referred to special education or required to repeat a grade throughout their public school experience. Later studies found that children enrolled in Head Start were less likely than their peers to become pregnant as teenagers or become involved with the criminal justice system. Opponents could no longer argue that Head Start provided no benefit to children. The coalition continues to play a crucial role in its expansion and contemporary policy questions, such as how to increase academic standards in the program, whether to move it from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, and what are the appropriate means of assessing the program's effectiveness.
See also: Education, United States.
Ames, Lynda J., and Jeanne Ellsworth. 1997. Women Reformed, Women Empowered: Poor Mothers and the Endangered Promise of Head Start. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Zigler, Edward, and Karen Anderson, eds. 1979. Project Head Start: A Legacy of the War on Poverty. New York: Free Press.
Zigler, Edward, and Susan Muenchow. 1992. Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment. New York: Basic Books.