Part I
Head Start Today

"Head Start is a celebration of human diversity and creativity."
Head Start Parent Involvement Coordinator California

Since it began in 1965, Head Start has served more than 13 million children and their families.

The United States cannot afford to waste its young children and ignore their families. Head Start provides us with an important sense of hope that we have the potential for helping our most vulnerable children and encouraging their families to live healthy, successful, and productive lives. Since it began in 1965, Head Start has served more than 13 million children and their families.

Yet so much more needs to be done. Entering the third millennium will be very different than living in the world we left behind thirty or more years ago. Poverty is different. Families are different. Communities are different. Head Start must respond and grow to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. At the same time it must maintain the concepts that have made it such a success, continue to serve more children, make the delivery of high quality services a top priority, and strive to be a model of service delivery for low-income children and their families.

These are the challenges that face the next century of Head Start programs. The Head Start Advisory Committee has reviewed available data, listened to various opinions, and discussed issues and options to help inform the next generation of Head Start. We first present a brief description of the program as it is today, providing evidence of its success and vulnerabilities. Based on the findings of our review, we recommend a series of steps and specific actions to renew the Head Start vision and to move the program successfully towards the future.>


Parents are
seen as the
influence on
their children's
and are direct
and decision
makers in the


Head Start, a comprehensive early childhood program for low-income children and their families, is found in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the outer Pacific Islands, and in nearly 150 Tribal Nations. The overall goal of Head Start is to promote the "social competence" of children. Social competence means everyday effectiveness in dealing with both the present environment and later responsibilities in school and life.

Head Start programs are guided by a set of Program Performance Standards and other policies that have emerged over its 28 year history. These standards and policies specify that Head Start programs must deliver a wide range of services to ensure comprehensive care including health, education, parent involvement, social services, and disability services.

The program is designed to maximize the strengths and unique experiences of each child and family. Parents are seen as the principle influence on their children's development and are direct participants and decision-makers in the program. Head Start staff, including the director, the component coordinators and supervisors, the teaching staff, the home visitors, the family service workers, the health and disabilities staff, the secretaries, the cooks, and the bus drivers, are expected to work together to support the spirit and philosophy of the Head Start program which is based on mutual respect, self worth, and the provision of supportive and nurturing relationships.

In 1993 Head Start is able to serve approximately 721,000 children and their families through a network of more than 2,000 grantees and delegate agencies operating some 36,300 classrooms and nearly 600 home visiting programs.

To be eligible for Head Start a child must be living in a family whose income is below the federal poverty line, currently $14,350 for a family of four. Head Start eligibility requirements are more stringent than eligibility for many other federal programs (NHSA, 1990), although policies allow ten percent of Head Start children to come from families that are over income. However, across the country only 5 percent of the children served are from over income families, although the demand for such services is far greater in communities with a higher cost of living. Some 13 percent of Head Start children have diagnosed disabilities.

The majority of Head Start children are four years old (see Figure 1). Head Start children come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds (see Figure 2). The majority of Head Start children are from single-parent homes while others come from two parent families (see Figure 3).


Head Start programs are sponsored by a variety of community-based agencies. As indicated in Figure 4, the vast majority are sponsored by Community Action Agencies and other non-profit organizations. Nineteen percent of Head Start programs nationwide are sponsored by school systems. Most programs are center-based and operate four to five days a week or less and under six hours per day (see Figure 5).

Funds for Head Start have increased dramatically over the past few years (see Figure 6) although costs per child have remained relatively stable in constant dollars with some increases in recent years (see Figure 7). The FY94 federal budget for Head Start is more than $3.3 billion.

Successes and Challenges

As Head Start moves towards the 21st century, it finds itself at a crossroad. After a period of rapid growth, Head Start can be proud of many successes yet still needs to be refocused to meet the challenges of a new age and to address existing quality problems. The Advisory Committee presents the following five overall findings:

1. Head Start has been successful in improving the lives of many low-income children and their families and serving as a national laboratory for early childhood and family support services.

Parents report that Head Start has benefited their young children and families. Over the years the Head Start program has reached out and received support from parents. Parents attending the recent National Parent Involvement Institute talked about Head Start having a positive impact on their child's preparation for school, their own understanding of the importance of their involvement in the education of their child, their overall parenting skills, and on their own self-esteem and the self-esteem of their child. These have been repeated themes in other parent surveys (NHSA, 1990).

"Head Start has
not only given
my child a Head
Start in life, but
one for me as
The voices of Head Start parents best tell the Head Start story. In comments to the Advisory Committee, parents said:
    "I have five children and I am a single parent. I came to live in my town after an 11 year abusive marriage, with no clothing, no housing, no money. We just picked up and left. . . . It was my daughter's turn to go to school... I got involved in every aspect of the program.. Head Start has not only given my child a Head Start in life, but one for me as well."

-Head Start Parent,

"I thought it was a bunch of bull that bureaucrats would let us help make the decisions. Low income people - no way - we have always been herded through the system by their rules. Rules made by people we didn't know. After all they had never lived as I had. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and Head Start really works."

-Head Start Parent

"Head Start
has caused people to
move from 'I
can't to I can,
just let me find
the way'."
The real workings and success of Head Start can also be heard stories told by staff. For example, Head Start staff have said:

"So many families who enroll in Head Start feel that their lives happen to them - what's going to happen to me today? We try to help them see that you have a say in what happens - you can set a goal, a direction, then go after it."
- Head Start Staff
New Hampshire

"Head Start has caused people to move from 'I can't to I can, just let me find the way'."
- Head Start Staff


"The expectation and belief of parents that their child can succeed and is capable of learning and doing well as a member of the community and work force may be the most salient and long-lasting affect of the program." 

- Head Start Staff

Programs provide multiple services. Program Information Reports indicate that the majority of children and families are receiving extensive comprehensive services. While there have been recent indications that the quality of service delivery across programs is uneven, Head Start has been one of the primary mechanisms for delivering health, education, and family services in low-income communities. Over the years:

  • Head Start has provided an early childhood education experience for millions of children;
  • Head Start has provided medical and dental screening and follow up to millions of children;
  • Head Start has provided critical social services and family support to millions of parents; 
  • Head Start has provided opportunities for hundreds of thousands of former Head Start parents to become employed in the program;
  • Head Start has improved the overall services for low-income families lies in thousands of communities across the country;
  • Head Start has provided important national leadership to the inclusion movement - working with public schools and other agencies to include children with disabilities in the program and community activities; and
  • Head Start has provided critical services to tens of thousands of children and families of migrant farm workers and Native Americans, in areas where other services may be extremely limited. 

Research indicates Head Start's effectiveness. A series of substantial and careful reviews has reported that Head Start produces benefits for the children and families experiencing the program (Bronfenbrenner, 1974; Datta, 1979; McCall, 1993; McKey et al., 1985; Zigler & Styfco, in press). The evidence is clear that Head Start produces immediate gains for children and families. The evidence on the long term impact of the program has been the subject of some debate.

Evidence from two somewhat different sources has been brought to bear on questions of Head Start's effectiveness: studies on Head Start and large scale studies of experimental early childhood demonstration programs.

Both kinds of studies help give us an understanding of Head Start's effectiveness.

Head Start has a positive impact on school readiness. Studies of Head Start programs indicate positive effects on children's cognitive skills, self-esteem, achievement motivation, and social behavior. Head Start has also been shown to have a positive impact on parent-child relationships, child health, and community services. Finally Head Start has had a strong impact on the training and employment of parents, and more than one-third of Head Start staff are current or former Head Start parents.

Longitudinal studies on children who have participated in experimental programs indicate that high quality child development programs show less grade retention, less placement in special education classes, and other long term benefits (Lazar et al., 1978; Schweinhart, Barnes & Weikart, 1993). Although these studies are not necessarily conducted on Head Start programs, they do appear to indicate that high quality Head Start programs can have similar long term results. There is some evidence of similar long term effects from studies on Head Start, although the data is limited. One review noted the lack of Head Start data on long term measures of life success (Haskins, 1989). Additional data is needed on the post Head Start experiences and the factors that may affect long term gains.

2. Most Head Start programs offer quality services, however, the quality of programs is uneven across the country.

Most programs are providing quality services. Results from on-site reviews conducted in the last several years show that most programs are in compliance with program regulations and deliver quality services. Over 30 percent of grantees monitored in 1993 had fewer than 6 items (of 222) out of compliance. Nationally grantees have on average demonstrated success in over 200 of the 222 items examined in program reviews.

Other studies also point to the quality of Head Start programs. A recent study of early childhood programs including Head Start, child care, and school sponsored preschool programs found that Head Start centers were among the highest rated and the level of quality was more consistent than in other programs (Layzer, Goodson, & Moss, 1993).

Some local programs need improvement. Reports by the Office of the Inspector General, HHS, provide indications of threats to program quality (USDHHS,OIG, May, 1993; September, 1993). The issue of uneven quality is not a new concern. In 1980, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Head Start noted that while many programs were well run, delivering all the mandated services, others were in need of improvement (IJSDHHS, 1980). Expansion without adequate resources, with limited flexibility, and without adequate time for planning, has strained some Head Start programs.

Slightly over 11 percent of grantees monitored in 1993 were found out of compliance in 50 or more of the 222 items reviewed. Another 18 percent need improvement in 26 - 50 areas. However, the number of items alone does not clearly indicate the extent of problems or the specific areas that need improvement. Looking across all programs monitored in FY93, among the major areas that most need improvement are the following: parent participation in decision making; establishing written procedures for program planning and for developing, reviewing, and revising budgets and work plans based on objectives; follow-up to assure the delivery of needed social services; providing staff and parent training in child development; and securing treatment for health problems.

Staffing across components is often a problem. Nearly 40 percent of the programs report difficulty hiring adequate staff. With the exception of the education component, there are no minimum education requirements for Head Start staff. There are often insufficient funds to provide adequate support to key components (see Figure 8). Staff salaries in Head Start are often inadequate to attract qualified staff (see Figure 9). Furthermore, caseloads for staff in health, social services, and parent involvement are sometimes too high to ensure adequate services (see Figure 10).

Average Salary
Education Coordinator
Health Coordinator
Social Services Coordinator
Parent Involvement Coordinator
Teacher (most tenured)
Teacher (least tenured)
Teacher's Aide (most tenured)

Figure 9. Head Start Staff Salaries as of June 1992

Finally, one recent review of indices of Head Start program quality concluded that grantees that are more likely to meet performance standards serve between 300-1000 children, employ coordinators with relatively higher levels of education and experience (which is correlated with higher salaries), and spend enough money in all components to ensure that services are provided to all families (Brush, Gaidurgis, & Best, 1993).

Program quality is strained by the growing needs of children and families and the lack of adequate services in the community. The quality of Head Start programs is not only affected by internal program characteristics. The ability to deliver services often depends on the intensity of family needs and the availability of resources in a community. Many program operators report that, over the past several years, the intensity of needs has increased as the availability of services has either decreased or stayed the same.

Figure 10. Caseload Ratios of Component Staff

For example, grantees have reported that there is a growing problem locating doctors and other medical service providers willing to accept Medicaid patients; there is a general lack of appropriate health and mental health services to meet the needs of Head Start families, particularly those that speak other languages; and programs have difficulty locating culturally appropriate services for children with special needs. In addition, programs are seeing increasing levels of substance abuse and violence in their communities.

Management practices at the local level need to be strengthened. One-third of grantees surveyed by the HHS Inspector General considered management issues to be their biggest challenge for future expansion. Reports indicate that management staff have increasing responsibilities and more complex administrative tasks, that there is a demand for additional management training, and that financial practices in some programs need to be improved.

Many Head Start programs experience problems securing and maintaining adequate facilities and providing adequate transportation. Head Start directors often report difficulties securing adequate facilities. In the Head Start Facilities Study, conducted by the National Head Start Association in 1991-92, programs reported that one-third of Head Start centers and other facilities "should be replaced, require extensive modeling/repairs, or are otherwise substandard" (NHSA, 1992).

Some Head Start programs also experience problems providing adequate transportation. Thirty percent of grantees do not provide transportation for children. Of the grantees that provide transportation, more than one-third report that expansion has had an adverse impact on their ability to transport children due to expansion into rural areas, increased enrollment that exceeds the capacity of their vehicles, and increased salary costs (HHS, OIG, 1993).

The capacity for federal oversight needs to be strengthened. The lack of adequate federal staff support at the central and regional office level has been a theme in several reports over the past 20 years (NHSA, 1990; USDHHS, 1980). For federal staff, workloads have increased and staff levels have decreased, not keeping pace with program growth.

Reports from central and regional offices, as well as from local Head Start program directors, indicate a need for additional training, travel, and support for all federal staff to assume more leadership and program management functions. New mechanisms that would allow a clearer line of authority between central office and regional office operations are also needed.

In addition, discussions with Head Start directors and staff as well as analysis of monitoring data have revealed that Regional Offices often differ in their interpretation and application of program policies. Program directors comparing decisions made in another region often find variation with interpretations made in their own region. Furthermore, the variation in monitoring results by region indicates that different approaches are used to determine when an item is judged out of compliance during a monitoring visit. At the same time, regional office staff report the need for additional involvement in the development of policies and follow-up and the need for training to help implement policies once they are established.

3. Head Start needs to be better equipped to serve the diverse needs of families.

Many Head Start families today face intense needs, without adequate supports. Head Start staff throughout the country report the growing and complex needs of the children and families they serve. Rising levels of violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and a host of other problems bring new challenges to Head Start programs that are already strained.

Children eligible for Head Start live in all types of communities. Almost half live in central cities, and nearly a quarter live in rural areas. In 1989, 17.5 percent of the children eligible for Head Start lived in communities with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher (Jargowsky, 1993). In addition last year 55 percent of the children enrolled in the program were being raised by single parents, and 4 percent were living apart from either parent.

The lack of adequate family service workers and specific training for social service and family support staff appears to be one of the most pressing problems in reaching families with intense needs. In addition, children from such families often need smaller class sizes and additional one on one attention. Children, parents, and staff need significantly more mental health consultation to cope with these rising concerns.

Many Head Start eligible families have younger children and are in need of services for pregnant women and children under age three. There is growing national concern about the well being of our youngest and most vulnerable children. The first three years of life provide the foundation for good health, problem solving, social and emotional development (Hamburg, 1992; Zero to Three, 1992). Yet today, far too many infants and toddlers are at risk during this critical period. Numerous recent reports catalogue the problems: increasing poverty rates; lack of adequate prenatal care; and ongoing, consistent, primary health care and nutritional support; alarmingly low immunization rates; insufficient family supports; and a lack of parent education (National Commission on Children, 1991).

These problems cannot be solved by a single program, approach, or policy. However, research indicates that early intervention and family support programs can have important long term effects on the lives of young children and families (Lally, Mangione, & Honig, 1987; Olds et al., 1986; Ramey & Ramey, 1992; Seitz, 1990). The potential benefits of providing services to families with younger children include promoting healthy development, reducing infant morbidity, intervening with teen-age parents, and filling the gaps in services for very young children with disabilities. To wait until children are age three or four ignores the potential of linking younger children to essential services, providing parent education and family support at one of the most critical periods of parenthood, and enriching the lives of children at their most vulnerable period.

Over the years relatively few children under the age of three have participated in Head Start. In FY 1992 Head Start served approximately 18,600 children under age three, or less than 1 percent of the children in this age range from Head Start eligible families. Head Start serves children under three primarily in two ways: through a network of Migrant Head Start Programs, and 106 Parent and Child Centers (PCCs) throughout the country.

A growing number of Head Start families are working or in training, yet most programs provide half day, part year services. More and more parents have entered the work force since Head Start began in 1965. Data from the Program Information Report (PIR) indicate that 33 percent of Head Start children have at least one parent who works full time (see Figure 11). Another 15 percent have parents that work part time or seasonally and 5 percent of parents are in school or training.

Figure 11. Head of Household Employment Status

In a survey conducted by the National Head Start Association (1990), parents most often listed the need for extended hours and days of operation as an area that needed improvement. Despite the need for full day services, data from the 1991-92 HSCOST system indicated that only 6.5 percent of Head Start children were served for 8 hours a day. Of these, half were served fewer than 36 weeks per year probably due to the large number of migrant programs that provide full day care). Fewer than 1 percent of the children were served in programs operating both 8 hours or more per day and more than 48 weeks per year. Research indicates that unemployed low-income parents would more readily seek work if affordable child care was made available.

Although Head Start programs currently have legislative authority to use funds for full day services, administrative policies over the past several years have discouraged such practices. Instead, the grantees have been encouraged to use other federal, state, and local child care funds to create "wrap-around" programs to serve the needs of working families. In 1991-92, some 25 percent of Head Start grantees reported that they used other arrangements to meet the full day needs of families.

Although some Head Start directors have been successful in putting wrap-around services together, little is known about the quality of services or the continuity of care for children. Furthermore, many Head Start directors report serious barriers to the use of "wrap-around funds." Ac cording to a survey conducted by the National Head Start Directors Association (1989) programs reported the following problems with "wrap around policies":

  • inadequate reimbursement rates to maintain Head Start standards;
  • conflicting regulations, eligibility, and fiscal requirements;
  • instability and uncertainty of funding; and
  • bookkeeping problems and additional paperwork associated with multiple funding sources.

Very little systematic technical assistance has been provided to help Head Start programs use wrap-around funds and still maintain quality.

4. There continues to he a large unmet need for Head Start services.

Head Start serves less than half of the eligible children. Despite the expansion in the past few years, Head Start still serves approximately 40 percent of the 1.8 million eligible three and four year olds. Figure 12 indicates that Head Start serves 21 percent of the eligible three year olds and 53 percent of the eligible four year olds.

Even when Head Start eligible children are served by other programs, the quality of services may be uneven and comprehensive services may not be provided. Over the years there has been an increase in the number of other early childhood services available. More than 30 states have some type of preschool initiative. State preschool programs either supplement federal programs such as Head Start to expand or improve services or fund a separate state preschool program. In addition, some 87,000 Chapter 1 children are preschool age, and thousands of other preschool children are served through Migrant Education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs preschool program, and through federal, state and local child care assistance.

Figure 12. Three and Four Year Olds Eligible vs. Served

Unfortunately, due to differences in eligibility requirements and duplication in counts across surveys, t here is no adequate accounting of how many Head Start eligible children attend other programs. However, a recent GAO report (1993) indicates that large numbers of low-income children remain unserved by any preschool program. The National Education Goals panel (1993) reports that less than half of the children aged 3 through 5 from families with incomes below $10,000 attend preschool, while 81 percent of children in this age group whose parents earn more than $75,000 participate.

Preschool attendance rates are generally much lower than kindergarten attendance, and show a pronounced relationship to the concentration of poor children in schools. Non-Head Start preschool participation rates are markedly skewed in favor of children now attending low-poverty schools, where attendance rates approach three times the level observed for high poverty schools. Including participants in Head Start programs roughly doubles the proportion of children in high-poverty schools who have had some preschool experience. This reduces the gap in preschool exposure between children attending low- and high-poverty schools, but does not come close to eliminating the difference (U.S. Department of Education, 1993).

Furthermore, even when Head Start eligible children attend other early childhood programs, services provided may not be appropriate to meet their needs. For example, The National Commission for Children (1991) found that few other programs offer Head Start's comprehensive approach.

5. In many communities and states Head Start, public schools, and other early childhood programs and providers responsible for addressing the needs of young children and families operate in isolation from one another without adequate resources, planning, and coordination.

The benefits of Head Start may be threatened if high quality comprehensive services are not provided from Head Start through the primary grades. T he recent attention to the National Education Goal of School Readiness recognizes that success in schools goes well beyond the provision of one year of educational services for young children. The three objectives of the readiness goal call attention to the need for adequate health and nutrition, parent involvement, and the provision of high quality develop mental early childhood programs.

The National Task Force on School Readiness framed the readiness issue as the provision of such health, family support, and education services for children birth through age eight (NASBE, 1991). In such an approach, readiness depends on the quality of the environment provided before children enter school as well as the expectations and environments provided during the early elementary grades.

The readiness goal provides a vision for children and families that can be shared by Head Start and other preschool programs and the public schools. This vision calls for necessary services to ensure that children receive attention to their health and nutrition needs, that parents are involved in the education of their children, and that continuous developmental education services are provided to children throughout the early years. When either the preschool program or the schools fail to adequately address any of these three areas, the future success of low-income children can be placed at-risk.

In many parts of the country there are differences between Head Start and the schools in pedagogy, philosophy, and structure (Kagan, 1991). Head Start provides comprehensive services including health, education, parent involvement, and social services. The central mission of the schools in grades K-3 is different - schools serve all income groups and focus on preparing children for reading and academic success. Parent involvement and health and social services may play an important supportive role, but are not as central as in Head Start.

These differences, along with the uneven quality of services that may be found in either Head Start or the schools, can lead to discontinuity for children and parents as they move from one setting to another during the early years. In order to sustain developmental gains for low-income children, high quality comprehensive early childhood education should be available both in Head Start and other early childhood programs and in the schools.

Two types of activities have supported improved continuity of services for young children and families. First, there have been a series of Head Start and school transition efforts which began with Follow-Through in 1967 and Project Developmental Continuity in 1974 and continue today through the Head Start Transition Projects and the Head Start/OERI Transition Initiative. Second, recent school reform efforts call for more developmentally appropriate primary education, expanded parent participation in schools, and supportive services.

Despite these and other reform efforts, the quality of Head Start programs still may vary, and too many public schools may fail to offer developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive classroom activities for low-income children, to welcome active parent involvement, and to address health and family support. This may be particularly true where children speak other languages, when children have disabilities, and when children and families are homeless.

Furthermore, according to the National Transition Study funded by the U.S. Department of Education (Love & Logue, 1992), transition activities for all children between preschool and schools are not widespread. For example, only 10 percent of schools report systematic communications between kindergarten teachers and previous teachers, only 12 percent of schools have kindergarten curricula designed to build on the preschool programs, and less than half (47 percent) have a formal program for school visitations by parents.

Services for children and families prenatal through age eight are often fragmented with few incentives for coordination. In addition to the need for continuity as children move into public schools, Head Start must now fit into a diverse set of early childhood programs and resources at the federal, state, and local level. Some of the most dramatic changes in communities since the beginning of Head Start are reflected in the increased number and variety of programs sponsored by states and local education agencies, the increase in resources and mandates for serving children with disabilities, and the expansion and demand for full day services.

There is a general lack of resources and cohesive policies and planning for young children and families across the early years. Along with other studies, the National Task Force on School Readiness found that programs for young children are largely uncoordinated. For example: conflicting eligibility and funding requirements often lead to discontinuity for children and confusion for parents, and program and fiscal policies often make it difficult for communities to develop quality services (NASBE, 1991). In addition, there are generally few mechanisms to encourage states and communities to plan and coordinate services. Lack of coordination often leads to competition for children, staff, and space (Goodman & Brady, 1988).

Although Head Start is the largest single early childhood program funded by the federal government, there are limited incentives for Head Start to coordinate at the state or local level. Head Start currently has 22 state collaboration grants; however, these programs have limited resources and supports and have not been adequately evaluated. This is at a time when more than 33 states are developing and implementing statewide initiatives to provide integrated children and family services.

Moreover, at the local level there is often no unified planning process for early childhood services. Although Head Start is required to conduct a community needs assessment, such activities too often take place without sufficient coordination with other early childhood and family support providers.

In summary, the Advisory Committee finds that although the majority of Head Start programs are providing quality services, some local programs need improvement. In addition, Head Start programs today need to be strengthened to better serve the diverse needs of families and to fit into the constellation of programs for children and families found in communities and states across the country.

Continue to Part 2