National Head Start program conceptualized while psychologists were beginning to study preventive intervention for young children living in poverty.
As a group, children who live in poverty tend to perform worse in school than do children from more privileged backgrounds. For the first half of the 20th century, researchers attributed this difference to inherent cognitive deficits. At the time, the prevailing belief was that the course of child development was dictated by biology and maturation. By the early 1960s, this position gave way to the notion popularized by psychologists such as J. McVicker Hunt and Benjamin Bloom that intelligence could rather easily be shaped by the environment. There was very little research at the time to support these speculations but a few psychologists had begun to study whether environmental manipulation could prevent poor cognitive outcomes. Results of studies by psychologists Susan Gray and Rupert Klaus (1965), Martin Deutsch (1965) and Bettye Caldwell and former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond (1968) supported the notion that early attention to physical and psychological development could improve cognitive ability.
These preliminary results caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, President Lyndon Johnson’s chief strategist in implementing an arsenal of antipoverty programs as part of the War on Poverty. His idea for a school readiness program for children of the poor focused on breaking the cycle of poverty. Shriver reasoned that if poor children could begin school on an equal footing with wealthier classmates, they would have a better of chance of succeeding in school and avoiding poverty in adulthood. He appointed a planning committee of 13 professionals in physical and mental health, early education, social work, and developmental psychology. Their work helped shape what is now known as the federal Head Start program.
The three developmental psychologists in the group were Urie Bronfenbrenner, Mamie Clark, and Edward Zigler. Bronfenbrenner convinced the other members that intervention would be most effective if it involved not just the child but the family and community that comprise the child-rearing environment. Parent involvement in school operations and administration were unheard of at the time, but it became a cornerstone of Head Start and proved to be a major contributor to its success. Zigler had been trained as a scientist and was distressed that the new program was not going to be field-tested before its nationwide launch. Arguing that it was not wise to base such a massive, innovative program on good ideas and concepts but little empirical evidence, he insisted that research and evaluation be part of Head Start. When he later became the federal official responsible for administering the program, Zigler (often referred to as the “father of Head Start”) worked to cast Head Start as a national laboratory for the design of effective early childhood services.
Although it is difficult to summarize the hundreds of empirical studies of Head Start outcomes, Head Start does seem to produce a variety of benefits for most children who participate. Although some studies have suggested that the intellectual advantages gained from participation in Head Start gradually disappear as children progress through elementary school, some of these same studies have shown more lasting benefits in the areas of school achievement and adjustment.
Head Start began as a great experiment that over the years has yielded prolific results. Some 20 million children and families have participated in Head Start since the summer of 1965; current enrollment approaches one million annually, including those in the new Early Head Start that serves families with children from birth to age 3. Psychological research on early intervention has proliferated, creating an expansive literature and sound knowledge base. Many research ideas designed and tested in the Head Start laboratory have been adapted in a variety of service delivery programs. These include family support services, home visiting, a credentialing process for early childhood workers, and education for parenthood. Head Start’s efforts in preschool education spotlighted the value of school readiness and helped spur today’s movement toward universal preschool.