Head Start is, and has always been, a school-readiness program. In 1964, the project’s planning committee convened and was charged with designing an intervention to help young, low-income children begin school on an equal footing with their peers from wealthier families. There was little scientific evidence at the time to identify the needs of poor preschoolers or to suggest how to meet them. The planners therefore had to build a construct of school readiness relevant to the population Head Start would serve.
The members represented a variety of professional disciplines, and each contributed the latest knowledge in his or her field. Together they crafted the comprehensive services, whole-child approach that has come to define Head Start. Because children cannot devote their full energies to learning when they are not in good health, Head Start would ensure access to medical care. Hunger can also take a child’s attention away from schoolwork, so Head Start would provide nutritious meals and snacks and teach parents to do the same at home. Cognitive skills would be emphasized, of course, but children would also be taught social skills so they could learn to get along with others and follow social rules in the classroom. Special attention would be paid to their emotional health so they could gain the confidence and motivation to succeed in school. Because parents are the child’s first and most influential teachers, they would be invited to participate in all facets of the preschool and in adult education and training as well. Finally, because poverty carries many stresses that can interfere with healthy functioning, social-support services would be available to children and their families.
Nearly four decades later, these components of Head Start have come to define quality early care and education. The effectiveness of the model has been proved in a plethora of studies over the years showing that Head Start graduates are ready for school and in fact show good progress in literacy, math, and social skills in kindergarten. However, their academic gains during preschool are not as great as they should be, leading some experts and some policymakers to propose making Head Start more academic and less comprehensive. Admittedly, Head Start teachers are not all well qualified, due in part to low salaries and community staffing patterns. But recent revisions in the Program Performance Standards, which govern the quality of Head Start services, have begun to address weaknesses in teacher training as well as curricula.
Strengthening the preschool-education component in such ways is the appropriate response to calls to bolster the school readiness of children who attend Head Start. Focusing on this component to the exclusion of the others is not. Children who have uncorrected vision or hearing problems, who are ill or malnourished, who don’t sleep at night because of fear or hurt, or who have parents too preoccupied with their own problems to pay attention to them, will struggle with learning to read no matter how good the teacher.
Edward Zigler is a professor of psychology at Yale University and was one of Head Start’s founders. Sally J. Styfco is the associate director of the Head Start section at the Yale Center in Child Development and Social Policy.
This article was included in a forum on Head Start.