Dear Dr. Whitehurst,
Thank you for this incisive article.
I am disappointed that the effects of Head Start don’t seem to follow
students into elementary school. I have been a preschool teacher for the
state funded pre-k program in VA 1997 to 2002 and a Head Start
teacher, child development specialist, and currently hybrid HS lead
teacher and leader of the Early Head Start program in our school system.
I know that by asking us to be hard headed you are asking us to
consider the evidence. I also ask that we consider as another commenter
suggested, what is not in the evidence. Head Start effects more than
just the children enrolled.
I agree that earlier intervention seems promising. My work and
minimal research into Early Head Start shows that EHS has a greater
influence on parents than on students. I wonder if this might be a clue
to where we need to focus our policy, practice, and research of HS.
Students who enter HS at birth and participate through to kindergarten
is a specialized group that may present some contrary evidence. In my
dissertation, (you are well cited thank you
I found that Head Start teachers in my small mixed methods study
engaged students in literacy but also attempted to engage parents in
the dominant culture where literacy has value. This two pronged
approach emerged from the engagement of parents in their homes around
children’s learning and family goals. I know that Head Start done half
way is worth less than half of what is spent. It is a false promise.
But, in high quality Head Start settings I think we might find the
effects lasting and important for children and families. Fundamentally
though, I think we are asking Head Start to do what it is not able to
do, fix the effects of poverty in one or two years.
Head Start has always been more of a social intervention than an
academic one. The more we ask HS to make children living in poverty like
children who don’t, or continue to remove family and social supports
once they leave HS the more disappointed we will be. Zigler argued
against using IQ as a measure of success in the 60s. I argue the same
here. I think your suggestion that HS funds go to state programs is a
great idea but, I left my state program prek to make a bigger difference
with children and parents in HS. The quality control in HS is higher
than in any state funded program I know. In VA the state funded prek
oversight has been reduced to a single individual. There are no site
visits and the data collected is minimal. The biggest difference though
is that Head Start requires home visits the state prek doesn’t. This is
where parents connect to teachers and relationships are formed that
So, is HS failing children and families? Yes, at times it is. But it is a matter of quality erasure. I wrote when the Head Start Impact study was released in 2010,
Head Start needs to acknowledge this report and NOT
change the subject. We need to take it as a call to action. I have been
asked several times if I am interested in directing a Head Start
program. My answer has always been, I am not sure. The program is 40
years old and has not undergone a major revision of performance
standards to my knowledge. Much has been added over the years, from
Training and Technical Assistance partnerships to requirements of
bachelors for half a program’s lead teachers, but nothing has been
taken away. It must be difficult for a director to consistently meet
the performance standards and not have to cut some quality corners in
other parts of their program. As a teacher recently told me, “Head
Start requires us to meet standards but doesn’t make it possible to do
A lot has changed in the past 40 years in early childhood education. A
significant revision of the performance standards, with a focus on
research based quality indicators would go a long way towards changing
the results of this study.
Head Start is overdue for a major revision. Maybe now we can refocus on what the program can do and not what it can’t.