Head Start, the largest federally funded preschool program, provides comprehensive services to economically disadvantaged children and their families so that children can enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school. Performance standards for the program include requirements for the intensity and quality of a broad range of services for children and families. Head Start programs must offer education, health, and nutrition services to children, offer social services to their families, and provide opportunities for parents’ involvement in the programs. Head Start is designed to enhance children’s cognitive skills, social development, physical and mental health, and good nutrition. Programs also are expected to support the parent as the child’s economic provider, first teacher, and primary advocate for education and health services. Some tailoring of program services is expected to meet the needs of diverse communities. Education services must be appropriate to children’s linguistic backgrounds and developmental needs, and family services must be individualized to meet parents’ goals and needs.
Head Start has long emphasized the importance of continuous program improvement and, in keeping with this emphasis, has invested significant resources in strategies to enhance the quality of program services. Since its early years, Head Start has considered itself a national laboratory for developing good early childhood practice through the development of innovative approaches and the honing of “best practices” that are based on professional wisdom. In many cases, research partnerships with universities have been a part of these efforts. Particularly during the past decade, policymakers and program administrators have focused on devising strategies to enhance the quality of Head Start services that can improve children’s readiness to enter kindergarten.