Head Start

The War on Poverty goes to school

President Lyndon Johnson’s early career was spent working as a teacher in the hardscrabble of west Texas. That is where Johnson saw poverty up close and developed his faith in the power of education to eradicate it. As Johnson quipped to Yale University psychologist Edward Zigler (whose essay appears on page 12) in May 1965, “If it weren’t for education, I’d still be looking at the southern end of a northbound mule.” Johnson’s faith became policy with the creation of Head Start, birthed during the heady, idealistic days of the Great Society’s “War on Poverty.”

Head Start’s roots lay in the troubles of the Community Action Programs, or CAPs, an early War on Poverty venture whose motivating idea was to mobilize the poor on their own behalf. The frequent controversies surrounding the programs made local officials somewhat skittish about applying for CAP grants. Left with a budget surplus and the bureaucratic tradition of “use it or lose it,” Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) director Sargent Shriver went fishing for a more politically salable anti-poverty investment. Hence Project Head Start.

Head Start reflected the belief that quality early-childhood education could inoculate disadvantaged children against the turbulence of their home and neighborhood life. It was to be a cost-effective endeavor; an early investment in nurturing at-risk children would avert later strains on social services and the justice system.

The same rationale, educational historian Maris Vinovskis has written, underlay the “infant schools” movement of the 1820s. The infant schools, a movement that quickly spread and then just as quickly disappeared before the Civil War, withered under the now-familiar criticism that academic training before the age of six or seven could inflict “serious and lasting injury” on “both the body and the mind,” as physician Amariah Brigham wrote in 1833.

Serious interest in early-childhood education wasn’t seen for another century. At Head Start’s inception, Zigler reports, only 32 states had kindergarten programs. Preschool programs for four-year-olds were almost “unheard of.” In the early 1960s, however, faith in the fortifying powers of preschool blossomed again on the strength of scholars Joseph McVicker Hunt and Benjamin Bloom’s finding that children’s IQs were not fixed at birth. Moreover, Bloom argued, the first five years of children’s lives were crucial to the development of their intellectual abilities. This was, Zigler writes, the “golden age” of cognitive psychology.

From the beginning, President Johnson and other advocates strongly promoted the IQ-raising potential of Head Start. Nonetheless, Head Start’s founders viewed it as much more than an academic intervention. Head Start was to provide a range of educational, medical, social, and psychological services to poor children and their families. Children can’t focus on learning, the thinking went, when they don’t have nutritious meals, healthy bodies, emotional stability, involved and knowledgeable parents, and social services designed to soften the impact of poverty.

Head Start’s links to the Community Action Programs made parental involvement a crucial aspect of the program. Not only would low-income parents learn child-rearing skills, such as how to prepare a nutritious meal. They would also serve as employees and volunteers in Head Start centers and have a strong voice in how the local programs were run. The War on Poverty’s links to the civil rights movement only enhanced their role. OEO staffers saw Head Start as a way of granting the power to minority parents that they lacked in segregated public schools.

This is crucial to understanding the resistance to the Bush Administration’s proposal to shift Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to the Department of Education. Similar resistance confronted President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to move Head Start to his proposed Department of Education. At the national level, Head Start parents, children’s advocates, and civil rights leaders feared that a move would undermine Head Start’s comprehensive approach that emphasized health care as much as education. At the local level, minority parents feared losing their voice in a white-dominated public school system. Congress ultimately nixed the idea of moving Head Start to the new Department of Education in 1978.

The overselling of Head Start’s ability to raise IQ, a highly stable measure of cognitive functioning, eventually caught up with the program. When early evaluations of the program found that children’s gains in IQ were small and faded out as they aged, the resulting uproar quelled President Richard Nixon’s attempt to expand the program. Funding for Head Start stalled throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The mixed results, however, should have come as no surprise. In the beginning, grants were handed out in a frenzy to just about anyone who set up shop in a church basement. Moreover, the intensely local nature of Head Start led to wide disparities in quality from program to program. In fact, it was hardly accurate even to call Head Start a program, or to say that Head Start had succeeded or failed. Some local grant recipients ran exceptional programs, others ran mediocre ones. Nearly all programs suffered from a shortage of trained early-childhood educators, and few had the funds to pay decent salaries anyway. Besides, the 14 members of the original planning committee hardly mentioned IQ. To them, whether children received their vaccinations, proper dental care, and a warm, encouraging oasis amid the chaos of urban life seemed just as important.

Still, Head Start survived the slash-and-burn Reagan years and became newly relevant with President George H. W. Bush’s national educational goal of having all children starting school “ready to learn” by the year 2000. In addition, the promising findings from model, much-more-expensive preschool programs such as the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, have renewed hopes for what Head Start could be. Funding quickened in the 1990s, with federal spending rising from roughly $1.6 billion in 1990 to $5.3 billion last year. Like its young charges, Head Start has proved remarkably resilient.

Tyce Palmaffy is the articles editor of Education Matters.

This article was included in a forum on Head Start. For an alternate take, please see “More than the Three Rs: The Head Start approach to school readiness” by Edward Zigler and Sally J. Styfco .

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