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Granite State Rumblings: Making The Case for Expanding Head Start Programs 

Image by U.S. Department of Education

Image by U.S. Department of Education


Over the past few months I have been in at least three different venues across the state where the topic of Head

Start has come up. In each of those conversations at least one person has said that Head Start does not work and Congress should do away with it.  They did not say we should fix what they perceive to be wrong with Head Start, just do away with it.

I have to admit I left those places shaking my head and wondering if the people who feel so strongly about doing away with Head Start have spent time in the classrooms with the children, teachers, and parents. If they had they would have seen that every day Head Start programs help children to catch up cognitively, socially, and emotionally with their peers who are higher up on the economic ladder, encourages and celebrates parents as their child’s first teachers, help pregnant women receive the services they need in order to give birth to healthy babies, and puts smiles on the faces and hope in the hearts of children and their families.

Young children living in poverty are more likely to face challenges that can negatively impact their development and create disparities in their cognitive and social abilities well before they enter Head Start or pre-school programs at age 4. In an effort to ensure that all young children have the same opportunities to succeed in school and life, the federal Early Head Start program was created to support the healthy development of low-income infants, toddlers, and pregnant women.

Research shows that Early Head Start makes a positive difference in areas associated with children’s success in school, family self-sufficiency, and parental support of child development, but federal funds are reaching fewer than 4% of eligible children and families. Children who participated in Early Head Start had significantly larger vocabularies and scored higher on standardized measures of cognitive development than children in a control group who did not participate in Early Head Start. Additionally, Early Head Start children and parents had more positive interactions, and these parents provided more support for learning than did those in a control group. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Making a Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and Their Families).

In addition to early learning opportunities, Head Start and Early Head Start’s comprehensive early childhood development programs provide children and families with access to a range of services such as health screenings, referrals and follow-up support, parenting resources, and social services. Programs emphasize the importance of parental involvement and staff work to cultivate parents’ abilities as their children’s first teachers.

So you may ask, if Head Start and Early Head Start provides all of this for children and their families, why do some people want to get rid of it? 

The answer to that may come down to this word: fadeout.

Our friends at The First Five Years Fund have this to say about the Head Start Fadeout Myth.

Head Start Fadeout, a common argument against investing in early childhood education, is based on a highly selective read of research findings found in Head Start evaluations and, to a lesser extent, the Perry Preschool project.

Critics argue that gains made through early childhood education disappear by the third grade. They acknowledge that disadvantaged children who received early education arrive at kindergarten ahead of peers who did not, but use third grade evaluations to claim there is no lasting effect to justify the investment.

A measurement of progress in the third grade is not a measurement of life outcomes. It’s simply a snapshot in time—and an incomplete one at that.

Research from many studies—including those cited by fadeout critics—overwhelmingly show that the benefits of early childhood education become more evident throughout schooling and adult life. There is no fadeout; there is constant, steady movement into upward mobility.

Disadvantaged children who receive quality early childhood education are more likely to persist in school, enjoy better career outcomes, higher wages and healthier lifestyles. These findings can be found in analysis of the Perry Preschool Project and Abecedarian in the United States, as well as the British Cohort Study in Great Britain, all of which are randomized control studies with longitudinal data that spans upwards of 35 years.

We’ll take 35 years of evidence over three any time.

The fadeout myth comes from an incomplete read of data and a narrow view of what constitutes success.

For example, the Perry Preschool Project has been criticized for not permanently increasing IQ among the treatment group. IQ gains that are evident at kindergarten among the treatment group tend to equalize with the control group during schooling years.

However, IQ is not the only measure of success in an individual. Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman found that the social and emotional skills learned through early childhood education were the major drivers of success in school, career and life among the Perry treatment group, who far outperform the control group in adult outcomes.

Similarly, the 2012 National Head Start Impact Study shows achievement among the treatment group equalizing with the control group by third grade. In this case, the Impact Study was flawed because many in the control group were allowed to attend other preschool programs, including Head Start programs in other locations. We may be seeing parity here because we’re comparing children with similar experiences.

Heckman says that using the Head Start Impact Study to claim that early childhood education is ineffective is “a generalized conclusion that is neither thoughtful nor accurate.” (Read more of his analysis here.) Heckman also finds that “Head Start graduates tend to be more persistent in their education, more inclined to healthy behaviors, and less inclined to be involved in criminal activity.”

“Head Start is by no means perfect, but that should not rule out efforts to improve the program’s quality and surround it with other high-quality birth-to-five programs that will deliver better outcomes for children, families and society.” – James Heckman


In May of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced Project Head Start. Head Start was part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, which embodied a basic belief that education was the solution to poverty.

It began as an 8 week demonstration project.

In 1977, under the Carter administration, Head Start began bilingual and bicultural programs in about 21 states. Eighteen years later, in1995 under the Clinton administration, the first Early Head Start grants were given to provide high quality child development and family services to income eligible pregnant women and families of very young children.

Head Start was most recently reauthorized again in 2007, under the George W. Bush administration, with several provisions to strengthen Head Start quality.  The statute also included a provision that regulations be promulgated to move programs from an indefinite project period to a five-year grant cycle. In 2009, under the Obama administration, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act added more than 64,000 slots for Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

Sequestration had a major impact on Head Start in 2013. The Office of Head Start reported that approximately 57,000 children were cut from Head Start programs nationwide because of sequestration. In addition to turning away those 57,000 children, Head Start programs were forced to

  • Cut 1.3 million days of service
  • Provide 18,000 fewer hours of service through shortened school days
  • Terminate or reduce salaries of 18,000 employees

In January of 2014 President Obama signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. This Act included $8,598,095,000 for programs under the Head Start Act, representing an increase of approximately $1.025 billion over the fiscal year (FY) 2013 funding level.

The approximately $1.025 billion increase restored the 5.27 percent reduction from sequestration and provided all grantees with a 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). The FY 2014 funding level also included $500 million for expansion through the Early Head Start-Child Care (EHS-CC) Partnership to support communities in expanding high-quality early learning and development opportunities for infants and toddlers.

State funding for Head Start was eliminated by the NH Legislature in the 2010.

In recent years, Head Start has served as a successful, comprehensive model for states in developing high quality pre-kindergarten systems. Additionally, Head Start’s unique shared governance structure provides a model to promote meaningful partnerships with families. Each program has a Policy Council that includes parents of children in the program and makes policy decisions together with staff.

Most children in New Hampshire Head Start programs attend 5 days a week for part of the day. Children and families receive an array of comprehensive supports and services. The top two services families receive are parenting and health education.

Pregnant women also receive a variety of supports and services. Included are coordination of prenatal and postpartum health care, dental and mental health services and follow up (substance abuse prevention and treatment), prenatal education on fetal development, information on the benefits of breastfeeding, emergency/crisis intervention, and others.

In New Hampshire, Head Start grew from 1,267 enrolled children in 1997 to more than 2,000 children (cumulative) enrolled today. New Hampshire is funded to serve 1,618 children and their families at any given time, but actual enrollment can be higher. However, far too many eligible children are not served due to lack of funding:

  • Nationally, it is estimated that Head Start serves less than 43% of eligible children and their families, and Early Head Start serves less than 4% of eligible infants and toddlers. 
  • New Hampshire Head Start serves only about 18% of eligible children aged birth to five years and their families.

Here is some more NH specific information from the 2013-2014 Program Information Report (PIR):

  • Cumulative Enrollment of Children by Age – Total 2,027    
    • Less than 1 Year Old – 139
    • 1 Year Old – 161
    • 2 Years Old – 185
    • 3 Years Old – 693
    • 4 Years Old – 849
  • Total Classes Operated – 87
  • Homeless Children Served – 175
  • Foster Care Children Served – 38
  • Child Welfare Agency Referral Children Served – 52
  • Number of Programs Providing Transportation – 2
  • Children with Health Insurance (at end of enrollment year) – 1,995
  • Children without Health Insurance (at end of enrollment year) – 32
  • Total Number of Families – 1,868
    • Two Parent Families – 795
    • Single Parent Families – 1,073

Recent research has shown what the Head Start community has long observed: Head Start works! Not only does it promote gains in children’s learning and development, Head Start also is associated with improved children’s health, promotes family self-sufficiency, and is cost effective.

Has Head Start had an impact on your life?  We would love to hear your story to share with others.

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About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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