Changes for Head Start
Head Start program began in 1965 as part of a comprehensive effort
to combat poverty in America. Since its inception, Head Start has
provided low-income children three to five years of age with a range
of educational, health, and social services. In 1994, Head Start
expanded its services when Congress created Early Head Start to
serve low-income families with infants and toddlers. Head Start
is now a $6.7 billion federal program that serves over 900,000 children
and families each year.
Bush Administration's 2004 budget includes a proposal that would
radically change the focus and administration of the program. Currently
Head Start is administered by the Department of Health and Human
Services. The Bush Administration is proposing to shift the oversight
of the program to the federal Department of Education to emphasize
its educational mission. This shift is also intended to help implement
a national skills assessment of the program's four-year-olds in
order to identify ineffective programs. In addition, the Bush Administration's
plan would give states the option to manage their Head Start dollars
and integrate the program with other state and federal preschool
plan has generated debate around three main areas. The first is
over the focus of the program. Supporters of the Administration's
plan feel that Head Start has failed to achieve its mission of school
readiness, pointing to research that shows that Head Start children,
while showing some improvement, still begin kindergarten far behind
children from middle-class homes. They feel the shift to the Department
of Education will serve to refocus Head Start on literacy and education.
of the shift argue that studies have shown that Head Start narrows
the gap between low-income children and their peers in vocabulary
and writing skills, and has persistent impacts on children's learning.
They say the key to the program is in its comprehensive approach
to preparing children for kindergarten-addressing health, social
and emotional development as well as cognitive development. Many
fear that the Department of Education will not be able to support
the range of services Head Start now encompasses.
area of contention is assessment. The Bush Administration feels
that a uniform assessment of all 4-year-olds in the program will
bring more accountability to Head Start. Many feel that Head Start
programs vary in quality because there is no standard curriculum
for school readiness and centers receive no guidance about which
skills and knowledge to teach. A standardized assessment would hold
centers to the same type of accountability that public schools now
face. Critics worry that linking assessment of individual children
to program accountability could lead to high stakes testing of preschoolers
and result in inappropriate and ineffective teaching. They are also
concerned with how such a standardized assessment would address
children with special needs or who speak English as a second language.
there is debate around states' control over Head Start. States who
choose to integrate Head Start dollars with their other preschool
dollars would have to develop their standards for what children
must learn and ways to measure their success. Thirty-six states
now spend state dollars on preschool programs. Supporters of the
Administration's proposal say it will impove coordination between
Head Start and other state programs.
charge that allowing states to have control over funding and guidelines
will eliminate national Head Start performance standards that are
considered a key to the program's quality and success. They also
fear that giving states control of the dollars, instead of direct
providers, may endanger the future of the program as states face
their most serious fiscal crisis in decades.
Bush Administration's plan would bring major changes to the Head
Start program. It raises questions about the program's focus, how
it should be held accountable and who should have control over funding
and program standards. These issues raise important questions that
early educators and advocates need to consider as the debate heats
Refocus Head Start on its Mission: Education, D. Ravitch,
The Brookings Institution, 2003.
President's Head Start Proposal: Bold step on the road to success
or will we lose our footing? S. Barnett, The National Institute
for Early Education Research, 2003.
look online at: www.brookings.edu,
Facts in Action, May/June 2003