History of Head Start

In January of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared The War on Poverty in his State of the Union speech. Shortly thereafter, Sargent Shriver took the lead in assembling a panel of experts to develop a comprehensive child development program that would help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. Among these experts were Dr. Robert Cooke, a pediatrician at John Hopkins University, and Dr. Edward Zigler, a professor of psychology and director of the Child Study Center at Yale University.

Part of the government’s thinking on poverty was influenced by new research on the effects of poverty, as well as on the impacts of education. This research indicated an obligation to help disadvantaged groups, compensating for inequality in social or economic conditions. The Head Start program was designed to help break the cycle of poverty, providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs. A key tenet of the program established that it be culturally responsive to the communities served, and that the communities have an investment in its success through the contribution of volunteer hours and other donations as nonfederal share.

The Head Start Program Performance Standards were originally published in 1975.  In 1995 the first Early Head Start grants were given.  In 1998, the Head Start program was reauthorized to expand to full-day and full-year services.  

The Head Start program, to include Early Head Start, was most recently reauthorized in 2007 with bipartisan support.  The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 had several provisions to strengthen Head Start quality. These include alignment of Head Start school readiness goals with state early learning standards, higher qualifications for the Head Start teaching workforce, State Advisory Councils on Early Care and Education in every state, and increased program monitoring, including a review of child outcomes and annual financial audits. The Head Start training and technical assistance system was redesigned to support programs through National Centers and state-based systems to ensure success. The statute also required the development of a system of designation renewal for grants, and a revision of the Head Start Program Performance Standards.

In 2011, the Designation Renewal System (DRS) established five-year grant periods for all Head Start service awards. Many agencies received further five-year grants without competing for funding. Any agency which met a specified condition during the course of the grant period would not be eligible for funding without competition. Instead, interested agencies would be given the opportunity to compete to provide Head Start and Early Head Start services in that area through a funding opportunity announcement (FOA).

In 2016, the Head Start Program Performance Standards were revised to incorporate findings from scientific research, reflect best practices and lessons from program innovation, and integrate recommendations from the Secretary’s Advisory Committee Final Report on Head Start Research and Evaluation. The new Performance Standards reduced the number of Head Start regulatory standards by approximately 30 percent, and improved regulatory clarity and transparency.

A comprehensive Head Start timeline is available on the ECLKC website.

Head Start programs have served more than 36 million children since 1965, growing from an eight-week demonstration project to include full day/year services and many program options. Currently, Head Start grants are administered by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start programs serve over a million children and their families each year in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories, including American Indian, Alaskan Native and Migrant/Seasonal communities.

Last Reviewed: June 4, 2019