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Empowerment and Education: Civil Rights, Expert-Advocates, and Parent Politics in Head Start, 1964Ė1980

by Josh Kagan - 2002

Much has been written about Head Start in the form of evaluations of the programís effectiveness, but little unbiased work about the programís politics has emerged. This essay asks how Head Start has survived and even thrived over thirty-five years when other Great Society programs have died. To answer this question, it explores the coalition that emerged between civil rights activists, intellectuals studying child development and social programs for children, and community action embodied in Great Society legislation. The essay traces the development of Head Start out of the emerging academic interest in "compensatory education for cultural depravation" and the New Left's desire to build a movement focused on civil rights and community action. These two groups, united in their support for Head Start and for broader reform of public education, fought over its treatment of parents of children enrolled in the program. However, neither side could correctly predict how parents actually experienced Head Start or how parents helped to ensure Head Start's political survival.

Much has been written about Head Start in the form of evaluations of the program’s effectiveness, but little unbiased work about the program’s politics has emerged. This essay asks how Head Start has survived and even thrived over thirty-five years when other Great Society programs have died. To answer this question, it explores the coalition that emerged between civil rights activists, intellectuals studying child development and social programs for children, and community action embodied in Great Society legislation. The essay traces the development of Head Start out of the emerging academic interest in “compensatory education for cultural depravation” and the New Left’s desire to build a movement focused on civil rights and community action. These two groups, united in their support for Head Start and for broader reform of public education, fought over its treatment of parents of children enrolled in the program. However, neither side could correctly predict how parents actually experienced Head Start or how parents helped to ensure Head Start’s political survival.


In late 1964, Lyndon Johnson and his antipoverty czar Sargent Shriver convened a committee of academics and civil rights activists to plan an intensive program for low-income three- and four-year-old children. The Economic Opportunity Act had granted the executive branch great leeway in designing antipoverty programs, and the Johnson administration eagerly wanted to create a program to reach poor children when they were still young. Civil rights activists sought to provide an alternative to existing education and social service agencies that generally disrespected black communities. Psychologists, pediatricians, and sociologists hoped to design a program that would help children overcome deprivation caused by poverty. As the committee members planned the program, they debated its name. Civil rights activists committed to the ideal of empowering poor communities suggested “Kiddie Corps” and “Baby Corps,” hoping that the word “corps” would imply grassroots political activism.1 Academics, operating from the premise that poor families exhibited parenting skill deficits that allowed middle-class children to get ahead of their impoverished peers, preferred “Head Start.”

The debate over the program’s name (which the academics won) encapsulated key debates surrounding Head Start. Should the program empower parents or educate them? How can Head Start’s model help poor children enjoy the same opportunities as affluent children in suburban schools? From Head Start’s inception through its first major crisis under President Richard Nixon and through the 1970s, a strong coalition of interest groups emerged from the Great Society to support the program, despite their different general outlooks on politics and policy. Civil rights activists and academics united behind Head Start, both hoping that it would lead to some kind of reform of public education and involve parents more productively than typical public schools. Their alliance came about despite their conflicts over the role of parents in the program. After debating the issue for three-and-a-half decades, neither side can claim complete victory, and neither fully explains Head Start’s survival. Parents were empowered and became a crucial element of the Head Start coalition, but they did not behave as either civil rights activists or expert-advocates expected.

The history of this coalition demands telling because, despite Head Start’s remarkable political popularity, politicians and activists often ignore or misunderstand is origins. Most notably, President George W. Bush has frequently claimed that he will “return Head Start to its original purpose,” children’s cognitive (especially beginning literacy) development.2 Similarly, a December 2000 report by the conservative Fordham Foundation, Education 2001, referred to Head Start’s “loss of focus” from its original goal of cognitive development.3 Both assertions appear more grounded in political motives than historical accuracy: While children’s cognitive development has always been a primary goal of Head Start’s, the program’s purpose was never so clear and was multifaceted from its inception. Indeed, these statements illustrate political tensions that have surrounded Head Start throughout its history.

Nor have academic studies told the full history of Head Start. In the thirty-four years since its inception, a wide body of literature on Head Start has emerged, most of which takes the side of civil rights activists or expert-advocates. Most authors have concerned themselves with the policy questions of whether Head Start is effective, how to judge its effectiveness, and whether Congress should increase or eliminate its funding. The resulting discourse has blurred the lines between academic objectivity and political action. Most of the literature can be classified according to whether it was written by civil rights activists or by expert-advocates, with each group articulating different standards for judging Head Start but united in support for the program. Although the civil rights movement’s intensity has faded since 1964, expert-advocates have continued to play a crucial role in crafting public policy. Accordingly, they have produced more Head Start literature than have civil rights workers; expert-advocates, who typically work in a university setting, also likely feel a professional pressure to publish. Thus far, no history exists that fully explores the interaction between these two perspectives.

Johnson and Shriver used the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to establish Head Start. The program began with an eight-week summer program for children about to enter public schools in June of 1965 and provided preschool classes, medical care, dental care, and mental health services for children living below the poverty line. It served more than 500,000 children that first summer, and its funding increased in 1966 and 1967. Like all other OEO programs, Head Start was legally obligated to foster the “maximum feasible participation” of the people it served. This clause of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act (which established the OEO) excited civil rights activists. To them, it indicated that poor people, especially poor blacks, would finally exert control over social services. Blacks would run the Community Action Programs, OEO-funded agencies separate from racist, established political, economic, and educational structures.

It did not take long for civil rights activists to write about Head Start. Nowhere were the civil rights implications of Head Start more clear than in Mississippi, where by the end of 1967, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (the CDGM was the largest Head Start grantee in that state) had been born, served thousands of children, gained national attention (positive and negative), and died. By 1969, one of its leaders, Polly Greenberg, published a 704-page account of its brief life, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes: A Biased Biography of the Child Development Group of Mississippi As the title indicates, Greenberg does not pretend to write an objective history. Rather, she celebrates the high levels of involvement of the families of children served by CDGM and mourns the opposition to CDGM from conservative white politicians.4 She and other civil rights activists focus on parent involvement in Head Start as a means of empowering disenfranchised poor minorities to work to overcome racism and poverty.

Greenberg saw the administration of Head Start as a battle between good guys and bad guys, between activists who sought to empower parents and entrenched powers who feared the results or lacked the courage necessary to support the work of CDGM, However, the goals of those politicians and policy makers went beyond opposition to civil rights activism. Some were racist, but most simply held an alternative vision for Head Start that focused more on children’s cognitive development and the education of parents and not on parent empowerment. It follows that much of the literature that takes the perspective of political and policy elites focuses on the intellectual and political climate of decisions affecting Head Start and ignores most of what happened at local Head Start centers.

Much of this type of Head Start literature comes from expert-advocates—university professors who have studied some element of child development and advocated for programs like Head Start. It is natural for professors to write about Head Start because many were integral to its planning and implementation. In late 1964, Shriver and Johnson convened a Planning Committee made up of pediatricians, psychologists, educators, and social workers to design the as-yet-unnamed children’s program. Many of these individuals and their colleagues continued to research Head Start and advocate on its behalf once they left their official positions.

The most prolific of these academics has been Edward Zigler, professor of psychology and director of the Child Study Center at Yale University. Zigler served on the Planning Committee in 1964 and 1965 and as Director of the Office of Child Development (OCD), which administered Head Start under President Nixon. He began publishing articles on the effectiveness of Head Start in psychological journals in the early 1970s, but his writing became more political by 1979, when he edited Project Head Start: A Legacy of the War on Poverty, which began with his essay on the history of the program. He continued in that vein with Head Start: The Inside Story of America’s Most Successful Educational Experiment, a 1992 book chronicling the behind-the-scenes political history of Head Start. A year later, he expanded his argument in Head Start and Beyond: A National Plan for Extended Childhood Intervention, which called for grand changes in the United States’ child care and educational systems following the model of Head Start.

Zigler’s analysis shows a keen understanding of the politics surrounding Head Start. However, his explanation of its survival is based on his familiarity with several individuals within the executive branch. Nixon’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Elliot Richardson (Zigler’s boss when he was director of the OCD) convinced Nixon not to ax Head Start.5 Similarly, Zigler credits Caspar Weinberger, who served as Secretary of HEW under Presidents Nixon and Ford, with keeping Head Start alive in the 1980s, when he served as President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense.6 Zigler’s analysis is understandably limited to the White House—that is where he had his only government experience. He does not discuss congressional or local politics in any depth. Nor does he explain how constituencies in strong support of Head Start developed and affected policy or why different groups of various political ideologies united in support of Head Start. With his stories of West Wing debates and decisions, Zigler makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of Head Start’s survival, but his interpretation indicates that he left the historical work unfinished.

The incomplete nature of Zigler’s analysis should come as no surprise because he did not intend to write a comprehensive history of Head Start. Zigler is not an ordinary academic; he is a public figure with much invested in the success of the program that he helped to develop. One of his primary goals is to advocate for Head Start and for similar early childhood programs and his primary audience is people who would support similar policies. The cover of Head Start: The Inside Story boasts the endorsement of Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman and liberal Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. The book “is dedicated to Sargent Shriver, Robert Cooke, Julius Richmond and Jule Sugarman, the brilliant individuals who made Head Start happen.”7 Zigler’s office is decorated with photographs of Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Shriver, and other supporters of Head Start, and his history celebrates the role that these individuals played. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to the “professionalization of reform,”8 he had individuals like Zigler in mind—experts turned advocates during the War on Poverty. When these expert-advocates wrote histories of programs that they designed, they did not provide a completely objective analysis. The most recent book on Head Start, Something Better for My Children by journalist Kay Mills,9 is similarly flawed. Also bragging a cover endorsement from Wright Edelman, Mills’ text reports the positive effects of Head Start that she witnessed, and little else.

This paper seeks to go beyond the boundaries of debate in existing Head Start literature and will not debate either the effectiveness of Head Start, the criteria with which to judge it, nor what policy changes are appropriate in the present time. This paper asks, instead, how Head Start survived when other Great Society programs did not and examines the development of the tense but effective coalition of civil rights activists, expert-advocates and parents. This paper focuses on the first decade and a half of Head Start’s life, before an overwhelming number of positive research results silenced most potential critics. Finally, this paper describes the Head Start coalition’s reaction to current political debates surrounding the program.


Optimism pervaded America during the early and middle 1960s. In the midst of an unprecedented economic boom, energetic and popular politicians convinced the nation that government could solve deep-rooted social problems, such as racism and poverty. Americans shared a growing concern about poverty and education, some of which owed to the Cold War. The Sputnik-induced fear of falling behind the Soviets educationally was still fresh and was renewed by a 1963 report that labeled one half of all men drafted by the military as physically or mentally unfit to serve.10 Demographic pressure on public schools created by the baby boom amplified calls for greater federal support of education.11 As early as 1962, prominent politicians called for massive education programs for poor children.12 Although differences existed, liberal education policies enjoyed wide, bipartisan support. A post-World War II liberal consensus peaked, but deeper tensions festered. While feminist activists and student protesters began to challenge accepted social norms, an increasingly militant civil rights movement clamored for more radical change than most politicians would support.

These trends provided the background for Lyndon Johnson’s inheritance of the presidency in 1963. Following the assassination of John Kennedy, politicians sought to enact the Kennedy agenda, however unclear, and Johnson enjoyed broad popularity and the freedom to define certain elements of Kennedy’s legacy. Johnson also sought to “transcend conflict,” to unite Americans under his leadership by pleasing all sides of a debate.13 Kennedy had spoken out against racial injustice but made only vague policy proposals to combat it. Johnson turned those vague suggestions into the compromise Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most notable laws in American history.

Bolstered by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and his resounding election over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (Johnson won sixty-one percent of the vote), Johnson made antipoverty initiatives the keystone of his domestic agenda. Kennedy had visited impoverished areas of the nation and spoke passionately about the need to fight poverty, but had relatively few accomplishments to show for it. In 1965-66 Congress passed a tremendous number of important laws, including the Voting Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and laws establishing Medicare and Medicaid and funding mass transit and urban renewal.14 These laws followed Johnson’s declaration of the “War on Poverty,” in which he cited Kennedy’s legacy in asking Americans to unite behind the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

Rallying the country to this cause was no easy task; while most people agreed that government could fight poverty, sharp disagreements remained over the basic causes of poverty and the most effective means with which to fight it. Some thought that poor people’s behavior caused their poverty and should be altered through social services. Others thought that poor people needed political empowerment to fight existing economic structures. Race underscored all antipoverty debates, whether or not politicians discussed civil rights. The resulting antipoverty programs enacted by Johnson often incorporated philosophies of different constituencies together with his personal stamp and that of and his closest aides. Head Start was no exception.

Personal interests of key members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations helped create Head Start. The Kennedy family had a great interest in child development because of the retardation of a family member. Robert Cooke, a pediatrician and the chairman of the Head Start Planning Committee, cared for that family member and built a relationship with the Kennedy family, especially with Shriver, who was a brother-in-law of the president and oversaw Head Start as director of the OEO.15 The personal connection to early education continued in the Johnson administration. Both Shriver and Johnson had early professional experiences in education. Shriver had served as president of the Chicago Board of Education for five years,16 and Johnson had begun his career in 1928 as a teacher in rural Texas, serving a large number of impoverished children and Chicano children, an experience he often cited in speeches.17 For both of these men, their experience in public schools and their belief in the liberal consensus gave them the faith that education could solve social ills and that they could unite various constituencies behind their education agenda. They confidently declared that they could “virtually eliminate” poverty without “set[ting] one group against another.”18

The optimism sparked by Head Start was not limited to the White House. Lady Bird Johnson served as honorary chairperson of Head Start, and she and members of the Head Start planning committee recruited other political wives to donate time to the cause. Lindy Boggs, wife of a Louisiana congressman; Sherri Henry, wife of the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission; and Dorothy Goldberg, wife of a Supreme Court justice; among others all helped recruit local agencies to administer Head Start and sorted through the ensuing grant applications. Jule Sugarman, a member of the Head Start Planning Committee, convinced more than one hundred federal government interns in the summer of 1965 to help set up beginning programs around the country.19 These and other volunteers managed to sort through more than 3,300 applications in six weeks. Locally, many civic groups, businesses, and individuals contributed. YMCAs, Kiwanis Clubs, Lions Clubs, National Farmers Unions, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Future Nurses of America, Future Homemakers, Future Farmers of America, and other similar organizations all sponsored Head Starts or contributed money, materials, or time to local programs. The OEO reported that 250,000 people (about half of whom were Head Start parents) volunteered in Head Start classrooms during the initial 1965 summer program.20 Health professionals donated their services, providing children with the medical care required under Head Start guidelines. For instance, the American Optometric Association established Volunteers for Vision to treat Head Start children. (That group also had a personal connection to the administration: Luci Baines Johnson, the president’s daughter, directed the Austin branch of Volunteers for Vision.21)

All of this local assistance was encouraged, indeed mandated, by the Office of Economic Opportunity. The OEO funded local nonprofit groups to administer Head Start but required all Head Start grantees to obtain twenty percent of the total cost whether from monetary donations or in-kind contributions. (In-kind contributions could include volunteer hours, giving Head Start centers an added incentive to encourage parent activity in centers.) This requirement resulted in local Head Start programs building networks of supporters in their local area and thus expanded the number of people with a stake in the future of Head Start.22 The national Head Start office helped to coordinate these efforts, contacting groups for assistance and issuing volunteer recruitment posters.23 OEO officials also solicited donations for Head Start and other programs. For instance, the director of the Maine OEO convinced two labor unions in Maine to donate wood blocks, cardboard, felt, and other classroom materials for all Head Start centers in the state.24

Head Start’s success in attracting various forms of support from professionals and middle-class volunteers indicated the high level of the program’s support outside of the communities it targeted. Private corporations attempted to tap into this support by marketing toys, books, and other products for children as “official” Head Start products. In 1966, Head Start directors warned advertisers to cease this practice because it was misleading (Head Start printed lists of “suitable” materials, but insisted that no items were official or required). Despite this warning, the Head Start appeal was hard to resist: Advertisers continued to use this tactic, leading to a sterner warning a year later requesting local agencies to report any offending advertisements to OEO attorneys.25

The popularity of Head Start and the idealism of volunteers could not free the War on Poverty from controversy. Part of the War on Poverty’s appeal was that it promised a democratization of power: Rather than the heavy hand of the federal government restructuring society from on high, change would come from the communities affected by government programs, especially poor communities that had been shut out of power throughout history. The Economic Opportunity Act required all OEO programs to be “Community Action Programs” (CAPs) and to allow the “maximum feasible participation” of people they served. The ideal of community participation had grown throughout the 1960s and had gained a foothold in policy circles. For instance, the 1962 President’s Commission on Juvenile and Youth Crime concluded that social services required neighborhood-based organization and democratic control to work.26 However, powerful forces resisted such calls, especially local politicians eager to use OEO funds for patronage and established welfare agencies (and their mostly white, middle-class leaders) accustomed to controlling social services.27 The National Council of Mayors entertained a resolution accusing Shriver of fomenting class struggle by granting poor people control of public funds without the consent of City Hall.28 The Johnson administration knew well how local officials would react and acquiesced to their demands. Unwilling to burst the illusion of a national consensus, Johnson refused to insist that poor people have control of CAPs. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan later wrote, “It was taken as a matter beneath notice that such programs would be dominated by the local political structure.”29 This unstated understanding soon became obvious to supporters of community control. By January 1965, liberal activist and intellectual Saul Alinsky referred to the War on Poverty as “political pornography” because of the absence of real control by poor people.30 A 1968 study called maximum feasible participation “a charade.”31 Civil rights activists felt betrayed when they realized that blacks (who constituted a disproportionately high number of poor people) would not have significant control over CAPs. In 1967, Stokely Carmichael mocked the OEO as an attempt to gloss over festering problems: “Some token money from the Office of Economic Opportunity may be promised and then everybody either prays for rain to cool off tempers and vacate the streets or for an early autumn.” By 1967, as the liberal consensus began to splinter, observers referred to the War on Poverty as “the failure of American liberalism.”32

The example of New Haven, Connecticut, is instructive. Under Mayor Richard Lee, New Haven was one of the most active cities in establishing social service programs, even before Johnson declared the War on Poverty. The city of New Haven channeled millions of dollars to programs through Community Progress, Inc. (CPI), a nonprofit initially funded in 1962 by a $2.5 million Ford Foundation grant written by two aides to the mayor.33 By 1964, before the Economic Opportunity Act was written, CPI had established a preschool program including classroom activities for parents for more than two hundred three- and four-year-old children. Other cities took note. One CPI leader left New Haven to advise New York City Mayor John Lindsay on his antipoverty programs. Officials in New York and other cities would routinely “make pilgrimages to New Haven to see how it’s done.”34 Other CPI and city officials also toured cities and universities around the country to lecture on the benefits of their policies.35 Once Congress established the OEO, CPI greatly expanded, using both federal and foundation funds, and the scope of its programs reached unprecedented proportions. By 1967, CPI employed more than three hundred people, and it spent about $7,700 for every New Haven family with an income less than $4,000.

The racial politics of the War on Poverty were clearly evident in New Haven—CPI employed large numbers of blacks, and its programs served mostly black residents. Lee and his allies used CPI to gain the favor of black politicians throughout the city. This strategy worked, avoiding a serious militant black challenge to Lee’s hold on power (Republicans ceased to be political players in New Haven in the 1950s). When Fred Harris, a black third-party candidate, ran for state legislature against a Lee-endorsed Democrat in 1968, he won only five percent of the vote.36 Yet CPI attracted its share of criticism, even from blacks. Its board of directors included representatives from Yale University, the Community Council, the United Fund, the New Haven Board of Education, and the New Haven Foundation—all organizations dominated by white professionals. No poor blacks were board members.37 By 1967, the Ford Foundation, CPI’s initial sponsor, issued a stinging evaluation, concluding that “residents are not consulted and do not participate meaningfully” in CPI programs.38 New Haven’s Congressman Robert Giaimo attacked CPI for being “an overly centralized, paternalistic, big brother institution, manned by planner-administrators who believe they know what is best for everyone.”39 Outside of formal structures, a group called Angry Black Men asserted that CPI was “failing to meet the needs of the people” and demanded (unsuccessfully) the resignation of CPI’s executive director.40

Critics spared Head Start their wrath. Local politicians could argue against other social programs as wasteful or contrary to the American work ethic, but it was harder to argue against giving money to a program serving young children. As Shriver wrote in 1979, “There is a bias against helping adults. But there’s a contrary bias in favor of helping children.”41 That, coupled with Head Start’s record of involving families better than other CAPs (explored below), resulted in Head Start quickly becoming the biggest CAP, accounting for forty percent of all OEO funds by the end of 1967.42


Along with the rest of the nation, academics rediscovered poverty in the late 1950s and 1960s and produced a wealth of literature attempting to explain how poverty continued to exist in the United States and to propose policies designed to eradicate poverty.43 As the rhetoric of John Kennedy and books such as Michael Harrington’s The Other America44 changed public attitudes, scholarly attitudes similarly evolved. For the first time since the New Deal, American intellectuals and policy makers sought to address poverty, but they advocated much different solutions. Where the New Deal had public works programs and economic regulation, the Great Society expanded existing social programs and created new ones.

Intellectuals in the burgeoning fields of psychology and child development identified children, rather than families, as appropriate subjects for study and as the logical targets of public policy. The focus, then, was on individual children; the goal was for society to help them, while families were presumed to be part of the problem, at least poor and minority families. This line of thinking follows the generalization of childhood historian Hugh Cunningham: In the second half of the twentieth century, Western societies exhibited growing distrust toward families and thus granted children more legal rights and viewed childhood as a proper arena for state intervention.45

Many intellectuals focused on the education system as a crucial element of any solution to poverty. An ideal education system would serve as a natural source of social mobility, but studies found that poorer children and minority children (especially blacks) did not perform as well in school as their white and middle-class counterparts and that performance deficits existed from the point when children entered public schools at age five or six. A number of academics sought to explain this difference without resorting to the social Darwinist arguments of previous decades. Out of this climate emerged several social scientists who claimed that intervention early in children’s life can have a permanent impact on their development. J. McVicker Hunt (in Intelligence and Experience46) and Benjamin Bloom (in Stability and Change in Human Characteristics47) made the two most famous claims. Both agreed that the first five years of life were critical in terms of later development and that environmental factors had a huge impact during those years. To the question “nature or nurture,” they answered with the latter.48 Intelligence, they argued, was not fixed at birth but, rather, was shaped by environmental forces. Bloom, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, claimed that one-half of a person’s intelligence was determined by age five and that intelligence gradually became more fixed by age eighteen.49

If the problem was that poor children and minority children were not as smart as white and middle-class children, then those children were being raised poorly. Hunt and Bloom both identified the quality of parenting, particularly mothering, as the most crucial factor in child development.50 Urie Bronfrenbrenner, another respected psychologist of the era who later served on the Head Start Planning Committee, identified a broader range of environmental factors but agreed that children’s parents had the largest impact on their lives.51 Thus the public policy solution would be to make poor and minority women better mothers or somehow compensate for their poor parenting. Bloom called this approach “compensatory education for cultural deprivation” in his 1965 book of that name.52

Bloom cautioned readers not to equate “cultural deprivation” with race—disproportionally high numbers of black children were poor, performed poorly in school, and, by implication, were deprived by their parents, but that should not indicate a critique of black culture.53 Other scholars, however, did not heed Bloom’s call. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” in 1965, which concluded “the deterioration of the Negro family . . . is the fundamental source of weakness in the Negro community at the present time.”54 Moynihan served as a close advisor to Lyndon Johnson and inserted similar ideas into Johnson’s speeches. For instance, a 1965 speech proclaimed: “Unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together, all the rest—schools, and playgrounds and public assistance, and private concern—will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.”55 The following year, E. Franklin Frazier released an updated edition of The Negro Family in the United States, which argued that urban blacks had lost significant contact with their African heritage and were, in essence, cultureless.56 Such intellectuals certainly had their critics—the Moynihan report, in particular, generated much opposition—but their ideas maintained their influence within the social sciences. One study from this era concluded that growing up with “impoverished modes of speech” had a negative impact on children’s cognitive abilities—essentially blaming ebonies for black children’s failures in school.57

Other academics interested in child development and poverty established pilot programs to prove that public policy could overcome cultural deprivation. These expert-advocates did not write for a narrow university audience; rather, they sought to influence politicians with their results. One book that included essays on research results and essays by civil rights leaders such as Stokely Carmichael featured this preamble: “We dedicate this book to the children of the poor in the hope that it will in some small measure help to alter their destiny in the schools.”58 Indeed, experts had more political clout in the decades after World War II than in most historical periods. “Thinker-doers”59 emerged from academia to dominate foreign policy. As historian Elaine Tyler May wrote, “postwar America was the era of the expert.” Self-appointed experts became influential on a given field of life: Benjamin Spock on child rearing, Alfred Kinsey on sex, and the myriad of men who brought America everything from linoleum floors and washing machines to fighter planes and the hydrogen bomb.60

Such experts conducted several studies that shaped the destiny of Head Start. These studies built on the compensatory education hypothesis and most incorporated two crucial factors: They focused on black children and determined success through cognitive gains measured by standardized tests, especially IQ tests. The most influential of these studies came from Susan Gray’s Early Training Project (funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation) at George Peabody Teachers College (which later joined Vanderbilt University). Sixty black children with mental disabilities children were admitted to a program designed to prevent “progressive retardation.” Gray concluded that her program raised the IQ of the children involved by ten or fifteen points.61 Similar projects began in the early 1960s in Syracuse and New York City. Another project begun in 1963 in New Haven, Connecticut, was funded by the Ford Foundation through Community Progress Incorporated (CPI), offering a ten-week summer program for four-year-old children living in poverty.62 The state of California established similar programs with the McAteer Act, which contained language taken directly from Bloom: That law’s introduction called for “compensatory education programs to aid culturally disadvantaged children.”63

Just as these studies and pilot programs filtered the ideas of Hunt and Bloom, the politicians and bureaucrats who designed Head Start filtered information from these studies and pilot programs. The Head Start Newsletter, published by the OEO, endorsed the concept of cultural deprivation, instructing Head Start volunteers and teachers how to address the “style of living among the disorganized families of the lower-lower class in which unemployment, separation, desertion, divorce, abandonment and neglect of children and dependency upon public aid are most frequent.”64 A later edition of the newsletter cited several IQ-based studies, concluding that “a child’s IQ can be improved by improving his environment” and that doing so will eliminate the child’s need for welfare and other social services later in life.65 Individuals who designed Head Start shared similar beliefs. For instance, Robert Cooke, the Kennedy friend and pediatrician who chaired the Head Start Planning Committee, followed studies linking poor nutrition of pregnant women to developmental problems in their children and insisted that Head Start encourage sound nutrition practices in children. Gray’s study had a particular impact on Sargent Shriver. Although Gray studied children with disabilities who would only make up a small portion of Head Start children, Shriver was convinced that Head Start would increase children’s IQs. He went so far as to tell Jule Sugarman, who served on the Head Start Planning Committee and later served under Shriver as director of Head Start, “Now, I want to prove this program is valuable. In fact, I’d like to say how many IQ points are gained for every dollar invested.” Not everyone was pleased with this mandate. For instance, Martin Deutsch resigned his seat on the Head Start advisory commission because powerful members of the Johnson administration exaggerated the benefits of Head Start, making it appear as a “miracle cure” while neglecting to explain the comprehensive nature of a program that included medical, dental, and mental health care and that sought to foster social development as much as cognitive development in children.66

Despite such objections, many studies in the first three years of Head Start’s existence looked only at children’s IQ changes, and the Johnson administration did exactly as Shriver wanted. In 1966, Shriver testified to Congress that the first Head Start summer program in 1965 raised children’s IQs by eight to ten points in just eight weeks.67 Lady Bird Johnson, the honorary chairperson of Head Start from 1965 until Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, cited a similar figure in all her public statements about Head Start and spoke of Head Start “opening the door leading from the darkness of poverty into the sunlight of hope and opportunity.”68 Lyndon Johnson predicted in 1965 that Head Start would ensure that the lives of children served “will be spent productively and rewardingly, rather than wasted in tax-supported institutions or in welfare-supported lethargy”69 and claimed in 1968 that Head Start had “raised the IQ of hundreds of thousands of children.”70

Head Start was the first preschool program evaluated by university professors using quantitative tests, distinguishing it from early education initiatives at previous points in history.71 Rather than locally based initiatives existing beyond the recognition of academics, Head Start was a large federal program enacted with the participation, support, and influence of expert-advocates. American education had established a sharp focus on quantitative testing from 1957. Ever since the Soviet Sputnik launch, policy elites criticized the “whole child” approach of public schools in favor of a skills-oriented pedagogy that would create a citizenry educated to fight the Cold War. That goal, and the pressure to achieve it as soon as possible, led to tests that would display dramatic, quick, and cost-effective results from education programs.72


Freedom is never given or granted—it is won. Freedom is founded on choice. Choice, in turn, rests upon trained, truth-seeking intelligence and a profound awareness of real alternatives. These qualities depend to a frightening extent upon the success or failure of the much talked about preschool program, Operation Head Start. ... If the operation in the slums gets out of political hands and into the hands of the people, America must brace itself for a genuine Negro renaissance and/or a real Negro revolution in the 1980s that will make the movements of the 1920s, 1940s and 1960s seem pale by comparison. If the operation fails, if it represents nothing more than half-hearted “compensatory education for cultural deprivation” and a misguided effort by white men to make Negroes over into their own ugly image, then I don’t want to be around to face the consequences.

Charles Keil, Urban Blues, 196673

Charles Keil hit on several paradoxical themes that marked civil rights73a activists’ support for Head Start. Black culture, they believed, should be validated by social service programs, not vilified by people like Moynihan. Consequently, blacks should have actual control over such programs, which should target structural inequalities rather than attributes of black families. These beliefs identified civil rights activists as a group and the activists who focused on young children’s issues. One black author, John Dill, urged policy makers to avoid integrating preschools because integration would prevent blacks from controlling those schools and force them into the same fate as CAPs. Further, Dill attacked the “deprivation concept” of scholars like Hunt and Bloom as offensive to blacks.74 The Black Child Development Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group, called for the creation of “child development centers,” controlled by blacks, that would spark development of entire communities.75 Despite attacks on War on Poverty programs and deficit theorists who designed Head Start, civil rights activists strongly supported Head Start.

Both Dill and the Black Child Development Institute cited Head Start as a program they supported. The key point in Head Start’s favor was its record of parent involvement.76 Parents of Head Start children often volunteered in classrooms, became teachers and other Head Start employees, and exercised some control over program decisions; Head Start resembled the ideal of “maximum feasible participation” more than most CAPs. Civil rights advocates insisted that Head Start maintain its focus on community action and opposed any change to the program that threatened parent involvement. The best example of this position occurred in 1978, when Head Start was thirteen years old and had survived the most severe threats to its existence. In that year, President Jimmy Carter proposed moving Head Start from the Department of Health Education and Welfare to the newly created Department of Education. A coalition of civil rights leaders, including Coretta Scott King, Vernon Jordan, Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman and Joseph Lowery, lobbied Congress to scuttle the plan, arguing that the Department of Education would put Head Start in the hands of local school districts, which did not have a strong record of listening to black voices. Once congressional opposition mounted and the success of activist efforts became clear, Carter removed the proposal.77 Civil rights advocates felt that they held a large stake in Head Start that would be lost if its parent involvement component was altered in any way.

Civil rights activists dramatically articulated this position through the Child Development Group of Mississippi, which administered Head Start in black areas of that state and which became a lightning rod for the debate over the connection among Head Start, civil rights, and community action. (One of the activists who later led the effort keep Head Start out of the Department of Education, Marian Wright Edelman, turned to children’s advocacy and founded the Children’s Defense Fund after her involvement with Head Start. After graduating from Yale Law School and working as a civil rights lawyer in the deep South, she, along with other civil rights activists including Fannie Lou Hamer,78 worked for the CDGM.) Mississippi was a logical location for this debate: Not only were fierce civil rights battles fought there throughout the 1960s, but also those battles included fronts in preschools. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee focused its black voter registration efforts on Mississippi and captured the nation’s attention when about 1,000 northern college students traveled to Mississippi in 1964 for “Freedom Summer.”79 Many of those activists coordinated Freedom Schools in 1964 for black children.80 The goal of CDGM was identical to that of the Freedom Schools: racial uplift. Polly Greenberg, a CDGM board member, dedicated her 1969 book The Devil Has Slippery Shoes: A Biased Biography of the CDGM to “the 13,000 little children who will one day make Mississippi a state fit for black folks to live in.”81

CDGM involved parents like no other Head Start program. Before its first grant was even approved, CDGM recruited parents of young children and community activists who identified 4,200 children and sixty sites for the first Head Start summer program in 1965. In impoverished rural Mississippi, parents worked together to repair buildings for Head Start, cook meals for children, find classroom supplies and transport children to centers. All these services were provided for free by poor parents and community members, whereas most Head Start agencies relied on their own funds or the volunteer work of middle-class individuals and organizations.82 CDGM also encouraged parents and employees to participate in political activism; its employment applications called for applicants to list their involvement in “community activity, civil rights activities and political, social and community groups.”83 CDGM administrators’ view of community action meant turning Head Start parents into political activists.

This activism created the controversy that eventually killed CDGM. Head Start, like so much of the War on Poverty, was seen as connected to civil rights activism, and it thus generated much of the same opposition. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in front of one CDGM site and an intoxicated white man fired shots at another.84 Police, Klansmen, and other conservative whites routinely harassed CDGM staff members.85 Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson condemned CDGM as “an effort on the part of extremists and agitators to subvert lawful authority in Mississippi and to create division and dissent between the races.”86 The Jackson Daily News published an editorial in 1965 arguing that Head Start would lead to the “ultimate mongrelization” of the nation.87

Other opponents used less racist rhetoric. Mississippi Senator John Stennis, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, charged CDGM with mismanaging federal funds, specifically using OEO money to fund some Delta Ministry, SNCC, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party civil rights activism. Greenberg responded that CDGM merely rented space from civil rights organizations to train teachers.88 Regardless of the validity of Stennis’ claim, OEO leadership echoed it and, in December 1967, refused to renew CDGM’s grant and instead funded the Mississippi Action for Progress, a group of moderate civil rights activists with close ties to Lyndon Johnson and the Mississippi Democratic Party (not the MDFP).89 The OEO gave its full support to the new program, even lauding its work when it was just several months old in the national Head Start Newsletter.90 (Needless to say, the newsletter never mentioned CDGM.) OEO was thus able to use politically acceptable language about CDGM’s accounting to kill that group rather than the racist rhetoric of Governor Johnson.

OEO and the Johnson administration had reason to distance themselves from CDGM. They had already aligned Head Start with civil rights, refusing to grant segregated southern agencies any Head Start money,” angering some whites who only wanted Head Start to serve poor white children.91 Head Start had attracted racist opposition elsewhere; for instance, the KKK burned crosses in front of Head Start centers in Alabama and Florida, too.92 Shriver and Johnson were unwilling to push the civil rights issue with Head Start any further. Shriver noted in 1979 that he feared for the future of all of Head Start and the OEO if politicians like Stennis could criticize programs for mismanaging funds. This fear explained his support for the decision not to renew CDGM’s funding.93 Powerful members of Congress lobbied the administration to reign in community action activists. Senator Russell Long, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked Ed Zigler, a member of the Head Start Planning Committee, “Why should I pay poor people to stir up trouble when I can’t find anyone to iron my shirts?”94 Another member of the planning committee, Urie Bronfrenbrenner, opposed CDGM because it represented “the danger that the Head Start program might be exploited by civil rights extremists.”95


The philosophy I found in social workers working with a low-income population was almost patronizing, not one of encouraging self-determination.96

Bessie Draper, Head Start National Parent Program Specialist, 1966

If Head Start parents, whether black or white, had no educational or parenting skill deficits, and no problems but lack of money, why were we doing the program? Why not just issue each family a check?97

Ed Zigler, Head Start Planning Committee Member, Director of the Office of Child Development, 1970-1972

You know, when you’re raising children and you’re just trying to get by, you’re not paying a lot of attention.

Tina Hunter, Head Start parent, 1965-1966, New Haven Head Start Parent Involvement Coordinator, 1989-present98

The politicians and bureaucrats in charge of Head Start sought to limit political activism from Head Start grantees, and that view became dominant with the demise of CDGM. However, the fears of Shriver, Bronfrenbrenner, and their allies may have been exaggerated. Civil rights activists supported Head Start nationally, but they rarely had as much influence over individual Head Start grantees as they did with CDGM. Civil rights activism did not play as large a role in parent involvement outside of Mississippi, but civil rights activists did pressure Head Start to grant more control to parents. Some civil rights activists sharply criticized certain Head Start programs; one wrote an essay in The New Republic claiming that “the Head Start program I’ve watched marches under the dreary flags of the middle class.” That program, he argued, focused on learning letters and numbers at the exclusion of building children’s pride in themselves and their culture, and Head Start should reform by granting more power to poor communities.99 The academics who designed the program tended to view Head Start as a means to make poor and minority people better parents. Civil rights activists saw Head Start as a means to empower poor parents politically. Neither side’s view accurately described how Head Start parent involvement played out.

Some points were not controversial. All policy makers agreed that Head Start should employ as many parents as possible. Head Start regulations required grantees to hire one teacher’s aide for every fifteen children and directed the grantees to hire aides without regard to academic qualifications and by giving preference to parents.100 By the mid-1970s, seventeen percent of Head Start staff nationally had children enrolled in the program, and an additional fifteen percent of staff had children who had graduated from -Head Start.101 However, because Head Start necessarily offered a limited number of positions, parents who became staff members did not represent a particularly large group in comparison to all Head Start parents. Still, many parents were directly involved in the classroom: In 1965, Head Start reported that about 125,000 parents had volunteered during the summer, when the program served a little more than 500,000 children.102

Head Start, nationally and at local centers, was also able to implement parent education programs. In its first two years of operation, Head Start centers in Los Angeles offered seminars entitled “Child Growth and Development,” “Speech Development,” “Health Education (Cleanliness, Clothing, Dental Health, Rest, Disease Prevention),” and “Nutrition and Purchasing Nutritious Foods and Low Cost.”103 After it was discovered that one Head Start center in Boston practiced corporal punishment, national guidelines prohibited that practice in Head Start, and grantees were encouraged to offer parent seminars on nonviolent discipline.104 The Head Start Newsletter published articles describing alternatives to spanking and celebrating parent seminars on nutrition and consumer thriftiness presented by local Head Start centers. Some descriptions of seminars were blatantly patronizing. One article, entitled “Mothers Learn to Cook,” reported that “the women, whose cultural differences have made it difficult to prepare dishes using some of the staples, have beep eager to learn ways to improve their families’ diets.”105It is hard to imagine parents describing that seminar in the same manner.

Clearly some Head Start programs sought to improve parenting skills (and not all patronized parents), but despite this trend and despite national regulations, dissension over parent involvement marked the first few years of Head Start’s life. The OEO required all Head Start grantees to form parent advisory boards but did not clearly define the power of such boards in relation to the schools and nonprofit agencies that operated local programs. As a result, superintendents and nonprofit directors often came into conflict with parent advisory boards. In this early test of the professionals and community action advocates, the professionals won: In 1966, the OEO ruled that the parent boards were purely “consultative” and that grantee directors maintained ultimate power.106 A 1967 OEO study reported generally poor use of parent advisory boards; of centers surveyed, more than half were labeled “deficient.” The following complaint of a center director was typical of “deficient” centers: “[My staff was] alienated by the idea of giving parents any actual control over what [we] conceive to be essentially an educational project.”107 Thus, in its first few years of operation, the OEO did not articulate a consistent message about parent involvement—OEO criticized centers that did not involve parents much but would do little or nothing to force those centers to change.

Conflicts continued and eventually forced Head Start to offer even more guidelines on parent involvement. In 1970, Ed Zigler, who supervised Head Start as director of the Office of Child Development, after consulting with Head Start Parent Program Specialist Bessie Draper, issued “Head Start Policy Manual 70.2: The Parents” as an attempt to settle the issue. This compromise statement emphasized the need to involve parents in the education of their children through volunteer work in the classroom and cited examples of both parent education and parent control as proper forms of parent involvement. The most innovative element of the new guidelines was the mandate to create Policy Councils, which parents would dominate but would also include community members and Head Start staff. The committees would have real power—they would make personnel decisions and control all funds that related to parent involvement. Any attempt at parent education would have the Policy Council’s approval and would thus be less likely to patronize parents. The most notable language of the new guidelines warned Head Start administrators to make sure that Policy Councils had real power:

Head Start staff must take care to avoid dominating meetings by force of their greater training and experience in the process of decision-making. At these meetings, professionals may be tempted to do most of the talking. They must learn to ask parents for their ideas, and listen with attention, patience and understanding.108

The creation of Policy Councils succeeded in diffusing national controversy over parent involvement. Insiders in the Office of Child Development report that the new directive was designed to keep parent involvement as a crucial component of Head Start, while preventing it from becoming too radical to survive the presidency of Richard Nixon.109 The compromise satisfied most people calling for parent involvement and spared Head Start criticism from the Nixon administration aimed at most community action programs. The debate then shifted to individual Head Start programs, where parents and staff had to negotiate a new balance of power, because the federal government only intervened in rare situations. In two cases, the federal government refused to renew the grant of local agencies that had not convened Policy Councils,110 but most grantees implemented the 1970 directive without much federal supervision.

The 1970 guidelines ended most discussion of the issue, but several academics studied it in the 1990s. Lynda Ames and Jeanne Ellsworth, both women’s studies professors, spent more than a year observing events and interviewing participants in North Country Head Start, which serves rural New Yorkers in the northeastern part of the state, before writing Women Reformed, Women Empowered: Poor Mothers and the Endangered Promise of Head Start. Administrators of that program, they argue, neither respected parents nor fully included them in decisions, as required by the 1970 guidelines. The Policy Council served as a rubber stamp, approving resignations of people who had already left, approving the hiring of people who had already begun working, and approving budgets written by the CAP executive director and board of directors.111 Tensions erupted when the authors proposed their study. Parents, they reported, heartily supported the idea and were anxious to tell their stories to Ames and Ellsworth.112 The executive director disagreed and became agitated when the Policy Council tried to overrule him. When he failed to convince the Policy Council to change its mind, he personally called the authors to ask them not to do the study. The authors declined, aligning themselves with parents and teachers against the administrators.113 The authors soon adopted the opinion of one mother they interviewed that the executive director “hates women, thinks they should all be little dollies at home.”114 This assertion conforms nicely with their feminist critique of some Head Start services as paternalistic.

Harvard Law professor Lucie White has a similar interest in Head Start Policy Councils.115 She lauds the symbolism of Policy Councils, which allow poor parents to come to “the very heart lands of domination”—schools and government agencies—and make important decisions using tools of the dominant culture such as Roberts’ Rules of Order.116 However, her observations of a Head Start in North Carolina led her to conclude that, in practice, Head Start parents exert little control over Policy Councils. In contrast to the sexist and paternalistic executive director in Women Reformed, Women Empowered, White describes structures that squelch poor people’s voices. Although community members and CAP staff sit on Policy Councils for years, parents have one-year terms (they are elected annually by their peers) and often do not begin serving their term until several months have already passed. Just as soon as they become comfortable with the structure of Policy Councils, their term ends and they leave without having made much of a mark.117

Ames, Ellsworth, and White attempt to restart the debate over parent involvement in Head Start by questioning the effectiveness of Policy Councils. However, their critique misses the larger point of how the great majority of parents experienced Head Start. By the nature of their structure, even Policy Councils that follow the letter and the spirit of the 1970 guidelines involved a small number of parents. Most Head Start parents did not work for the program and most did not participate in planning decisions. Ames and Ellsworth effectively argue, “the joke was on the deficit theorists” who sought to instill their values in lower-class families; parents did not experience Head Start as the expert-advocates expected.118 But the joke was also on the civil rights activists calling for greater parental control of Head Start. They thought parent involvement would make versions of themselves out of Head Start parents—people who would identify large power structures that oppressed them and who would then overthrow those structures. Charles Keil’s prediction of “a genuine Negro renaissance, and/or a real Negro revolution in the 1980s” spurred by Head Start did not come true.

Head Start parents did have significant involvement with the program—by and large, they felt that Head Start valued their opinions and efforts, and they bonded with other parents through Head Start programs, bonds which empowered them to demand a greater voice in and in behalf of the program. Consequently, parents have formed the most loyal group of Head Start supporters and successfully lobbied on the program’s behalf.

Head Start helped create a stronger sense of community among poor parents, especially poor mothers, and much of that effect emerged from the structure of the program. Many Head Start centers included parent rooms, where mothers could meet and claim a sense of ownership over the program—a sense that was rare among poor people in social service programs. Nationwide, Head Start encouraged parents to volunteer in the classroom and ordered teachers and other staff to respect parents who did so. Ames and Ellsworth argue that this element of Head Start helped boost the confidence of mothers because it granted them the chance to show off their parenting skills—the very skills derided by politicians and deficit theorists. Even in parent education programs, seminars designed to teach Head Start parents certain skills, parents had the opportunity to meet and form personal bonds.119 Tina Hunter, who now serves as New Haven Head Start’s Parent Involvement Coordinator and was a Head Start parent from 1965-1966, described the sense of community built by Head Start:

Head Start’s effects were readily noticed, and it was noticed by parents because they were involved. And a lot of it was self-esteem, because a lot of parents went in and volunteered in the classroom and a lot of the parents worked in the neighborhood, and we got to know each other and learn about our children.120

Laverne Jenkins, whose children were enrolled in New Haven Head Start from 1966-1967 and from 1968-1969, recalled a similar phenomenon:

The parents really began to network with each other, you know, for example, babysit. If someone was taking classes for their GED, we’d take care of child care duties. We definitely made friendships there, otherwise people would often just stay to themselves.121

Karen Sheaffer, who taught at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, Head Start from 1966-1967 and returned as director of the center from 1981-1985, witnessed that development as she worked with staff and parents to ensure they had access to services they needed:

There was this building that had a Head Start and another day care in it. It was not a very good space—had a leaky roof and lots of other maintenance problems. I helped organize them to call the public works department directly. And when they made their calls, it got results. What changed is parents would begin talking about what services they wanted for their children. There was much less of the old attitude, “oh, government, you can’t do anything about it.”122

Sociologist Barbara Peters described a similar phenomenon among Head Start mothers she studied in the late 1990s.123 Interviewing a set of mothers of children attending one Head Start center, Peters notes that women entered the program feeling the stigma of being “welfare mothers” and left with greater self-confidence, reporting that they felt they were better mothers. “Head Start seems to give the mothers new options and new ways of defining themselves as mothers.”124

Many Head Start teachers and staff members went out of their way to support Head Start parents faced with problems unrelated to the classroom. The New York Times profiled one such example in New York City. Blanca Vazquez, a parent of a child about to finish Head Start, was forced to move because her apartment building in the East Twenties of Manhattan was slated for demolition in an urban renewal project. Vazquez wanted to remain in that neighborhood and hoped her children would be able to attend the community elementary school, but she had difficulty finding an affordable apartment. Head Start officials stepped in, locating an apartment and a housing subsidy to help her stay in the neighborhood.125 (To this day, The New York Times publishes similar stories semiregularly in their series “The Neediest Cases,” which often highlights a New York Head Start program supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. These articles indicate Head Start’s continued support of parents on issues outside of the classroom.126) New Haven Head Start centers provided similar services to most parents. Staff helped connect parents to social services for which they were eligible, ranging from welfare and food stamps to job training.127 Understanding the financial pressures facing Head Start families, the program organized bus trips to flea markets and discount stores as far away as Philadelphia, especially around the holidays in December.128

Strong parental support for Head Start resulted from these efforts. Scores of studies emerged in the first few years of Head Start, and although they often had conflicting conclusions on the effectiveness of the program, they all agreed on the strength of parental support. The 1969 Westinghouse Report—a critical study concluding that Head Start had no discernible cognitive effect on children—reported that ninety percent of parents believed that Head Start had directly influenced their child for the better, eighty-seven percent of parents said there was nothing about Head Start they disliked, and fifty-three percent of parents had participated in Head Start classrooms.129

A 1967 survey of parents in one Los Angeles-area Head Start program is also telling. The survey listed several parent involvement activities and asked parents to mark whether those activities were “very helpful,” “helpful,” “occasionally helpful,” or a “waste of time.” The most popular element was the most basic, talking with Head Start teachers informally at the end of the school day or when parents volunteered in the classroom. The least popular activity was parent education programs; for instance, more than half of parents surveyed did not answer the question about homemaking skills workshops, and more than half who did wrote that they were “occasionally helpful.” So, although parent education did not strongly endear parents to Head Start, it did not engender parental opposition. No parent reported that any element of Head Start was a “waste of time.”-The survey also had a final category, asking parents if any unmentioned activity was particularly helpful. More than two-thirds of parents surveyed answered yes, and all of those said that the unnamed element of Head Start was “very helpful.”130 Thus, parents were attracted to some hard-to-classify quality of Head Start. A survey of New Haven parents yielded similar results: Less than half of those surveyed had attended the parent education seminars, but every parent surveyed had favorable reactions to the program as a whole and reported that Head Start had helped their child.131

Parental support regularly took on political importance whenever Head Start appeared threatened by politicians in Washington. In 1968, several hundred New Haven Head Start parents signed a petition urging their Congressional delegation to defeat a proposed move of Head Start to the Office of Education (the bill failed in the House); they argued that the move would threaten parent involvement, “one of the most important aspects of Head Start.”132 A smaller group of New Haven parents took a bus to Washington, B.C. to meet with Connecticut Senators Lowell Weicker and Thomas Dodd, both of whom voted in their favor.133 In 1978, Head Start parents mobilized to stop Carter’s proposal to move the program to the Department of Education. New Haven Head Start parents took a bus to Washington to lobby Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, the sponsor of the Department of Education bill in the Senate. Similarly, Illinois parents visited Senator Charles Percy, the ranking Republican on the committee that would vote on the bill. After these visits, Ribicoff moved to remove the bill’s provision regarding Head Start, and that motion passed unanimously.134

Throughout Head Start’s history, parents did not solely focus on debates in Washington. When national Head Start officials traveled around the country, parents followed them. Ed Zigler, in his 1992 book Head Start: The Inside Story of America’s Most Successful Educational Experiment, reported several occasions of parents heckling him during different speeches. He directed the Office of Child Development in the Nixon administration, which was known for cutting Great Society programs. Parents were understandably concerned about the future of Head Start, and they took it out on Zigler. When Zigler addressed the New England Association of Young Children in New Haven in 1970, thirty Head Start parents from Rhode Island bused themselves to Connecticut to protest Zigler. At a stop in Marin City, California, 800 Head Start parents confronted Zigler to tell him not to cut Head Start funds. In November, 500 parents welcomed Zigler to his Washington office with chants of “Zigler must go!”135 One would be hard-pressed to find a stronger supporter of Head Start than Zigler. However, these parental protests should not be judged by the choice of target but by the passion displayed and message sent to policy makers. Parents forcefully announced their support for the program and promised loud opposition to any politician who sought to cut Head Start funds.

Most important, parents channeled their support into a single-issue lobbying organization, building the National Head Start Association (NHSA). Head Start directors established the group in 1973, but parents soon became the largest group within the NHSA. From Head Start’s inception, community action staff had sought to educate Head Start parents about a range of political issues (and community action staff helped organize parents for many of the political actions in Head Start’s first decade).136 At least when it came to political issues relating to Head Start, they found a receptive audience, so asking parents to join an organization to lobby solely for Head Start was not a stretch. NHSA membership swelled in 1978, as parents joined the organization to lobby against Carter’s Department of Education proposal, which “was the catalyst that made NHSA a much larger and important organization.”137 Through private donations and member dues, the NHSA lobbied on Head Start’s behalf with an annual budget of less than $8,000, helping, in 1978, to win Head Start’s first significant budget increase since 1967.138 The remarkable development is how parents became a potent political force during Head Start’s first decade without central organization. Their political power became institutionalized in the NHSA, which helped manage future political efforts. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the NHSA played a large role in organizing parents in political efforts—organizing letter-writing and petition-signing campaigns and, in certain cases, marches on Washington.

To this day, the NHSA organizes parents and Head Start staff to advocate for keeping Head Start in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). President George W. Bush has advocated moving Head Start to the Department of Education as a symbolic establishment of cognitive development as the program’s primary purpose but has put off a formal proposal until 2003, when Head Start is due to be reauthorized by Congress. Echoed by the Children’s Defense Fund, the NHSA employs a multifaceted argument to support keeping Head Start in HHS.139 Their most passionate claim is that Bush’s proposed move, coupled with various statements by him and his administration, indicates an attack on poor families and, implicitly, an attack on the active role families have had in Head Start. The NHSA points to the role of parents as majority members of local Head Start agencies’ policy councils; according to Townley Mailler, the NHSA’s director of government affairs, “I seriously doubt school boards are going to go for that [parent control] in the department of education. . . . Parents are nervous—they might not have the say they had before.” If Bush sticks with his proposed move, Mailler promises that parents “will be marching on Washington. . . . Some of what President Bush has said is offensive—like we need to teach parents to read to their kids.” The NHSA reports that they have begun organizing parents to write letters to Congress and the President to prepare for an all-out fight, if that is needed.140

The NHSA’s emphasis on Policy Councils and desire to defend the role of families and services to families in Head Start have led some to ask who the NHSA truly represents, Head Start employees and parents in official roles—people with a stake, for better or worse, in the status quo—or all parents. This seems to be the implicit critique, for instance, in the Fordham Foundation’s December 2000 report that urged the President and Congress to “resist interest group pressures that are only focused on social services.”141 What evidence exists weighs on the side of the NHSA. First, the Fordham Foundation seems to ignore the NHSA’s many statements in favor of increased academic standards for Head Start and on efforts to train Head Start teachers to implement higher standards. More important, the NHSA’s ability over almost three decades to organize and motivate parents as a political force suggests the organization has a finger on the pulse of a significant portion of Head Start parents. In terms of current political debates, it seems likely that a loud outcry from parents would be heard if Bush sticks with his proposed move.

The NHSA also makes a management point: HHS has administered Head Start for thirty-six years and is used to administering programs that combine different social services, whereas the Department of Education does not have that experience. Considering the now numerous studies confirming Head Start’s positive impact, why put the program under new management? Zigler has made a similar argument, in the New York Times shortly after Bush secured the presidency, noting that Head Start had a more impressive impact on children than Even Start, a similar program managed by the Department of Education.142

Not all expert-advocates agree with Zigler. The Fordham Foundation’s December 2000 report, by Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Diane Ravitch, endorsed a move to the Department of Education. They argue this move is “partly a symbolic shift” and imply it would help Head Start focus more on children’s cognitive development.143 Bush has echoed these arguments.

Bush and his allies view the proposed move in a fundamentally different light than the NHSA and Children’s Defense Fund. A desire to establish higher standards for Head Start children’s cognitive development motivates Bush and expert-advocates like Finn, Manno, and Ravitch. Rather than a liberal versus conservative fight (as is occurring over budget appropriations-Bush proposed a two percent increase for Head Start, less than the rate of inflation), the fight over moving Head Start out of HHS is reminiscent of arguments between civil rights activists and expert-advocates. In this most recent reincarnation, Bush and his allies link the issue of higher standards to the switch out of HHS. The NHSA and the Children’s Defense Fund see standards as a separate issue and see keeping Head Start in HHS as an issue over parent involvement. Indeed, the NHSA has told the Bush administration that they “can be the President’s best friend in school reform and enhancing literacy, but none of that will happen if they don’t take moving Head Start to the Department of Education off the table.”144 As in the previous incarnation of this debate, parent activism will likely play a crucial role.

Although Head Start parents have lobbied extensively and effectively on the program’s behalf throughout its history, their activism did not spread to larger political movements. This point is noteworthy because of the grand political expectations that many civil rights activists and CAP enthusiasts held for Head Start. Polly Greenberg details the civil rights activism of Head Start parents in Mississippi. More recent authors, such as Ames, Ellsworth, and White, focus on the role of the small minority of parents involved in formal political structures such as the Policy Council. Ames and Ellsworth celebrate the “empowerment” of one Head Start mother who served on the Policy Council and lobbied the state government on behalf of causes other than Head Start. But she is the only parent in their study who did any such lobbying.145 The parent who supported Head Start and lobbied for it, but not for other causes, was more typical. Laverne Jenkins, who enthusiastically signed petitions in support of increased funding for Head Start, described her separation from politics at large:

One of the things about being poor is that your focus is on doing whatever you need to do to feed your family. Many people didn’t see voting as a means of initiating change.146

The personal stake of parents in the program sparked their activism. Brenda McDuffie, whose daughter was enrolled in New Haven Head Start in 1973-1974 and who later became a Head Start teacher, put it bluntly: “I was concerned with getting funding because my daughter was in Head Start, and after that I was a substitute and I wanted to get paid.”147


Civil rights activists and expert-advocates all strongly supported Head Start yet conceived of the program differently. However, they all viewed Head Start’s parental involvement as a mechanism for achieving education reform. If public schools involved parents, children would receive a more balanced education (as academics argued), and poor and minority families would gain control of institutions that had failed them (as civil rights activists argued). Both sides feared that the benefits of Head Start would be erased by low-quality public schools. Donald Cohen, who served as Special Assistant to Edward Zigler, then the Director of the Office of Child Development, recalled that everyone directly involved in Head Start shared a “distrust” of public schools and saw Head Start as “a way to create an alternative system.”148 These beliefs fell in line with the growing national concern over the ability of public education to provide equal opportunity to all children. Many public intellectuals came to the same conclusion as did Patricia Cayo Sexton’s 1964 book Education and Income: The varying levels of quality in public schools reinforced and even expanded socioeconomic inequalities. Poor children attended bad schools and graduated without the skills necessary to achieve social mobility.149 During their years in school, black children fell even further behind white children: Blacks in grade six were 1.6 years behind the national average, and, by grade twelve, blacks were 3.3 years behind the national average.150 Other calls for education reform demanded more radical changes in the pedagogy of American schools, which were perceived as overly rigid. A 1967 article in the journal Education concluded that “the structure of education must be rethought and, ultimately, revised.”151

Civil rights activists latched onto these ideas. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included a clause mandating a federal study of the relationship between race and educational opportunity.152 Some black academics sought to make schools, especially predominately black schools, focus on enhancing the self-esteem of black children. Building on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which criticized school segregation for creating a sense of “inferiority” in black children,153 a conference of black educators and education professors demanded that schools cease “to develop conceptions of self in Negro children and youth which result in defeated behavior.”154 The Chicano nationalist manifesto El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan declared, “education must be relative to our people” and called for “community control of our schools.”155

These attitudes translated into strong civil rights support for Head Start. Polly Greenberg, discussing the Child Development Group of Mississippi, contrasted the “lovely loose program for children” for which she worked with “the rigid public school programs.” Head Start could help blacks get ahead; very simply, “public schools are a beast of another color.” Greenberg criticized those Head Start summer programs that hired public school teachers for hiring employees from failed institutions.156 Civil rights activists fought to keep Head Start out of the public school system and sometimes found themselves at odds with entrenched public schools interests. As discussed above, civil rights activists won that round and Head Start remained in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, despite lobbying on behalf of the Department of Education by that National Education Association.157

In a broader context, blacks, especially poorer blacks living in inner cities, demanded more control over their local schools. As education historian David Tyack tells it, blacks ho longer consented to educators trying to fit their children into “the one best system” and “substituted self-determination as a goal instead of assimilation; they rejected ‘equality’ if that meant Anglo-conformity.”158 Embittered by the unfulfilled promise of Brown, many black activists saw integration as a lower priority than gaining control over their children’s schools and ensuring them a high-quality education. If white educators could not be trusted to integrate public schools or let black children attend good schools, then community control was the logical alternative.159 The Head Start model of parental involvement naturally appealed to these civil rights activists. The New York Times, using the language of Head Start’s academic advocates, endorsed the inherent class (and, by implication, racial) segregation of Head Start, editorializing against a plan to include middle-class children in the program: The “separation of rich and poor” was necessary to afford “the kind of saturation services” that were the hallmark of compensatory education.160

Experts involved with Head Start also criticized public schools and sometimes called for radical education reform. Poverty warriors consciously put Head Start under the auspices of the OEO, rather than include it in the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which gave funds directly to local school boards, thus separating Head Start from existing school structures. The most cogent criticism of Head Start was the claim by some researchers that its effect faded out: By the third grade, one could not tell the difference between children who had attended Head Start and their peers who had not.161 Academic supporters of Head Start blamed those results on the public schools, noting that Head Start children showed marked improvement when they left the program and thus public schools must have “ruined” Head Start’s achievements. Robert Mendelsohn, who managed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ contract to perform medical services for Head Start children, asserted that “sending a child to Head Start and then putting him into a public school is like preparing a soldier for combat by sending him on vacation to the French Riviera.” To minimize children’s exposure to battle, Mendelsohn suggested creating a separate school system for Head Start graduates. Like Head Start, that school system would feature significantly more parent involvement than public schools.162

Mendelsohn presented his idea in testimony to Congress in 1969, where the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor favorably received it, but no legislation emerged.163 However, policy makers did consider and enact other programs modeled in some way after Head Start. Lyndon Johnson worried that “substandard schools” might damage the positive results of Head Start.164 Sargent Shriver (almost certainly acting with Johnson’s approval) issued a six-point plan for “Project Keep Moving” to help children maintain their gains from Head Start in the public schools; the plan included a call for parents to ‘be involved in the activities of every public school.”165 The Head Start Newsletter proudly cited examples of public schools following Head Start’s model of parent involvement, including parent education seminars and opportunities for parents to volunteer regularly in the classroom.166 Other OEO publications claimed that public schools were less likely than in the past to involve parents, and “that this trend may be most easily reversed” by building connections between schools and parents before children reach kindergarten.167

In New Haven, Community Progress, Inc., held a Summer Institute for Teachers of the Educationally Disadvantaged to spread their education agenda, which called for increased parental involvement in public schools.168 CPI also attempted to reform public education through Community Schools. CPI identified seven New Haven schools as Community Schools and used those buildings for community meetings and adult education and directed volunteers to tutor children at those schools, all in an effort to break down barriers between communities and schools.169 As one CPI director described it, Community Schools would “help the people in these neighborhoods understand that the school is a facility for good and not necessarily for evil.”170

Many new programs did seek to infuse the public schools with the philosophy of Head Start. The attention to early education created by Head Start helped expand public kindergarten. In 1965, only eighteen states funded universal public kindergarten; by 1970, eighty percent of five year olds attended public kindergarten and, in 2000, all states now fund some sort of kindergarten, with most funding universal kindergarten.171 By 1998 twenty-eight states even funded some form of public prekindergarten education.172 Some of Head Start’s pedagogy reached a much larger audience when Sesame Street (a program that received some funding and expert advice from Head Start) was launched on public television in 1968.173 Head Start helped professionalize and increase numbers of early childhood educators. In 1972, in conjunction with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (a group dominated by professional educators), Head Start began the Child Development Associate (CDA) program to increase the quantity and quality of training received by teachers of young children. Although not a degree like an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, a CDA provides minimal teacher training.174 (Such a program had tremendous importance because child care was and is much less regulated than public education, and few, if any, requirements existed for teachers of young children.) Head Start also provided an easy means for researchers to collect data on child development and the effects of the program. By 1975, 700 different studies had analyzed Head Start. By 1982, that number grew to 1,448. By 1982, enough studies concluded that Head Start had a positive effect on the cognitive development of children that the entire early education field gained prestige.175

Head Start’s public polity effect was assisted by federal legislation and administrative decisions. Federal legislation helped public kindergartens expand—the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (passed after Head Start’s first summer) provided grant money to states to establish kindergarten.176 The ESEA also provided money for Follow Through, which served Head Start graduates who had reached elementary school (despite Mendelsohn’s call for separate schools for these children, they were not segregated from their peers). The ESEA sought to involve parents of all public school children, providing funds to help schools hire parents as teachers’ aides. By 1968, schools had hired 64,000 teacher’s aides with ESEA funds and 180,000 more aides volunteered their time; the majority of both sets were parents of students. The law also gave school districts incentives to establish parent advisory committees along the lines of those in Head Start.177 When Zigler directed Head Start, he sought to make it “the nation’s laboratory for quality programs for children” and spawned a series of Head Start spin-offs, including Home Start (serving children at their homes), Health Start (providing health care to children under five), Child and Family Resource Program (helping connect families to available services, especially child care), and Education for Parenthood (teaching teenagers parenting skills).178 Several Head Start Planning Committee members sat on a presidential task force chaired by J. McVicker Hunt, charged with designing Parent and Child Centers to serve children zero to two years old.179 This effort, at least to a degree, was bipartisan; President Nixon’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Robert Finch lauded the use of ESEA funds for programs similar to Head Start.180

Expert-advocates who helped establish Head Start pressed their ideas in the broader world of public education, which continues to feel the impact of Head Start, particularly its emphasis on parent involvement and comprehensive services. For example, in 1987, under the leadership of Zigler, the Yale Bush Center developed the “school of the 21st century” model, which features child care for all families, health care services for young children and their families, nutrition education for families, and home visitations for children birth through three. By 2000, more than 400 “schools of the 21st century” operated in thirteen states.181 Expert-advocates like Zigler attempt to reform public schools, rather than push Mendelsohn’s idea of an alternative school system. This helps explain why contemporary movements to establish public prekindergarten typically seek to attach such services to existing public school systems.

Head Start’s involvement of parents has been evoked in broader efforts to increase parental control over public school systems. The charter school movement best exemplifies this phenomenon, often consciously seeking to turn parents into advocates and build them as partners in education. Charter school advocates advise reformers establishing new charter schools to “build a strong, positive working relationship between the school and family” and note that “parents also are an incredible source ... of advocacy,” a must in the often politically charged arena of establishing and operating charter schools.182 Although there is great variability from one charter school to another, there is some evidence that charter schools involve families to a greater degree than other public schools.183 Before the charter school movement emerged, some of the nation’s largest public school systems had sought to engage parents and local communities as a means of diminishing entrenched powers and making individual schools involve parents to a greater degree. Employing the rhetoric of community action and control, New York enacted a flawed reform plan in 1969, creating a set of thirty-two local school boards under the citywide board to govern local elementary and middle schools.184 In 1988, Chicago enacted more effective reforms that mandated “Local School Councils” with parent majorities, reminiscent of Head Start’s Policy Councils with the added power of hiring and firing the school principal.185 Federal and state governments approached the issue using the language of parent education when President George Bush gathered state governors for an education summit in 1989 to set “America 2000” goals. Those goals included “by the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn,” and one of the primary means of achieving this was through parent training and support.186

The education reform impact works both ways: Other education reform movements have affected Head Start, especially in recent years. The most notable example is the standards movement. More local and state governments, and (following proposals from George W. Bush and Congressional Democrats in 2001) the federal government, insist that schools test students regularly to measure their development and set high standards to pass. Similarly, the era of different Head Start delegate agencies providing vastly different services are coming to an end. Beginning with the Clinton administration, delegate agencies faced a real threat of losing funding if they did not perform up to expectations.187 Perhaps most remarkable, the 1998 law to reauthorize Head Start included provisions requiring HHS to establish standards for the cognitive development of children once they left Head Start. For the first time, the federal government could hold delegate agencies to a set of specific outcomes, like the expectation that children would leave Head Start able to recognize at least ten letters. Indeed, the disagreement over moving Head Start out of HHS and Head Start budget appropriations has overshadowed the high degree of agreement over setting high standards for children’s cognitive development. Some activists worry about what Bush means by making Head Start a literacy program. For instance, Helen Blank of the Children’s Defense Fund said, “I don’t even know what that means. It’s a comprehensive program, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a reading program.”188 Zigler wrote in The New York Times, “I hope Mr. Bush learns more about Head Start. At the level that is possible for children of 3 and 4, it is already a reading program.”189 The most likely answer is a continuation of policies designed to provide stricter quality control of Head Start delegate agencies and establish clear standards for children’s cognitive development. In fact, the Head Start center pointed to by the Bush administration as emblematic of their preferred approach merely implements the 1998 standards with great success.190


Head Start’s influence was not clear in the early 1970s. Most programs modeled after Head Start were short lived or did not expand beyond the level of pilot programs. For instance, funds for many of the ESEA grants were not renewed under President Richard Nixon. By 1979, only thirty-six Parent and Child Centers existed.191 The ascendancy of Nixon in 1968 threatened all War on Poverty programs and led to the demise of many of them. After 1968, civil rights activists lost their audience in the White House and the academics who designed Head Start found themselves upstaged by researchers who challenged the assumptions of compensatory education. As a result, legislative efforts on behalf of Head Start and its various spin-offs stalled.

Nixon and the growing conservative movement tapped into the “silent majority’s” resistance to some liberal social trends, including civil rights activism. During Nixon’s presidency, this political tactic translated into opposition to any new civil rights bills and vocal opposition to many school desegregation orders issued by federal courts. Less prominently, Nixon sought to roll back legislation funding community action programs. Unlike his predecessor, Nixon did not depend on the votes of blacks and felt little pressure to listen to the issues of black activists.192 As a result, civil rights activists with a stake in Head Start lost their voice in the executive branch.

Expert-advocates in favor of Head Start fared better: They retained their official status but lost much of their clout with the president. Zigler became director of the new Office of Child Development (which oversaw Head Start) in 1969 but soon had to defend the program he helped create from negative studies that emerged from the federal government. In early 1969, the Nixon administration directed the Evaluation Division of the Office of Economic Opportunity to study Head Start. The OEO complied and chose the Westinghouse Learning Corporation to oversee the research. A crucial decision related to the nature of the research—the administration demanded results as soon as possible and thus instructed Westinghouse to study Head Start graduates who were then in first, second, and third grades, rather than conduct a longitudinal study, which would have taken longer but been more scientifically valid. This decision, coupled with Nixon’s well-known opposition to community action programs, made Head Start activists nervous. Zigler and other administrators urged the OEO to alter dramatically the shape of the study, but to no avail.193 When the final Westinghouse Report emerged several months later, it contained a brief disclaimer that summarized the criticisms by Head Start activists of the study but soon moved on to discuss the study’s conclusions. In sum, Westinghouse concluded that Head Start had no lasting cognitive effect on children; by the second grade, Head Start children were indistinguishable from their peers who never enrolled in Head Start.194 Head Start activists pointed to alternative studies that featured more positive conclusions, and some condemned the study.195 Stanford statistician William Madow ordered Westinghouse to remove his name from the report because of his displeasure with its methods and results. Even Nixon’s Secretary of HEW Robert Finch called the study “sloppy.” But those views did not win out within the administration, and Westinghouse’s results kept Head Start advocates on the defensive.196

Nixon took full advantage of the Westinghouse results to question the effectiveness of Head Start and, by implication, all similar programs that might be proposed. Nixon noted, “Head Start is still experimental” and asserted that “the preliminary reports on this program confirm what many have feared: the long term effect of Head Start appears to be extremely weak.”197 Nixon hedged his bets on Head Start by qualifying his language—the program “appeared” to be ineffective—and stopped short, in 1969, of calling for its repeal. But it was clear that he and his administration were not supporters of Head Start and accepted the Westinghouse Report’s results, despite the criticisms of many academics. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a speechwriter and domestic policy advisor to Nixon, defended the study in The New York Times and later wrote that Head Start was a “dismal”198 program: “the children were getting their teeth fixed, but little else that could be quantified.” Those who criticized the study, according to Moynihan, were stubborn ideologues who failed “to face the finding of failure when it appeared.”199

The Westinghouse Study also called attention to academic critics of compensatory education. Later in 1969, Arthur Jensen published his essay “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Jensen is best known for his argument that IQ is mostly fixed at birth and is racially linked. However, Jensen structured his argument as a critique of Hunt and Bloom’s emphasis on raising children’s IQ and the resulting programs like Head, Start; his essay began, “Compensatory education has been tried and it apparently has failed.”200 Less inflammatory academics questioned the ability of social programs to increase the IQs of children; books published in the mid-1960s routinely included the phrase “cultural deprivation” in their titles, but by the 1970s, “The Myth of the Deprived Child” was a more typical phrase.201

The Coleman Report, mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, played a crucial role in this intellectual transition. The report, released in 1966, concluded that “differences between schools account for only a small fraction of differences in pupil achievement,” and a child’s socioeconomic background and exposure to affluent peers in school were the most important variables.202 Daniel Patrick Moynihan later edited an anthology that generally praised and expanded Coleman’s conclusions. (Moynihan’s contributors included many leading scholars of education and psychology but did not include J. McVicker Hunt, Benjamin Bloom, or any of their proteges.) Differences existed between black and white schools, but those differences were not sufficient to explain the disparity between black and white academic achievement.203 These results attacked the basic premises of compensatory education: If the quality of schooling had negligible effects, then building new educational programs for poor children would only waste time and money. Christopher Jencks, a member of the Harvard faculty seminar, built on this theme in his 1972 book Inequality, concluding, “educational compensation is usually of marginal value to the recipients.”204 In a political context, all such studies had the same impact: They validated the conservative opinion that, as stated by Barry Goldwater during the 1964 campaign, “Most people who have no skills have had no education for the same reason—low intelligence or low ambition.”205 Federal social programs would do nothing to change that.206

Although there was a new political climate in the White House, less changed on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers had already staked out positions on Head Start. Opponents sought to attack Head Start at their first opportunity. In 1968, the Senate passed a bill killing Head Start and replacing it with block grants to the states. After numerous calls from Head Start supporters (including many parents), the House rejected the bill, following the leadership of powerful Education and Labor Committee Chairman Carl Perkins.207 Meanwhile, supporters of Head Start sought rapid expansion of the program. In 1969, the two most visible supporters, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and Indiana Representative John Brademas (both Democrats), proposed the Head Start Child Development Act, which would have tripled Head Start by 1974 and provided enough money to open the program to families above the poverty line, charging fees on a sliding scale. But Nixon indicated his opposition, and the bill did not pass either house of Congress.208

So the legislative balance of power led to gridlock: Head Start opponents could not muster the votes to pass any bills, and Head Start supporters could not garner enough support to fight a threatened veto. Head Start funding remained level from 1967 to 1976 and barely kept pace with inflation.209 Head Start advocates saw an opportunity to break the impasse and pass a comprehensive bill in late 1970, when Nixon proposed a key element of his welfare reform agenda: The Family Assistance Plan, which would have provided income subsidies to all low-income working families (the idea was to attack welfare dependency by providing a negative income tax and thus an incentive for poor people to find work).210 If millions of poor people were to find work, someone would have to take care of their children, and Head Start supporters used this reasoning to push the Child Care Development Act of 1971 (written by Mondale and Brademas). The bill provided $2.1 billion for child care programs modeled after Head Start and promised to set the “legislative framework” for universal child care for children three to five years old.211 Linking child care legislation to Nixon’s welfare reform plan attracted the support of politicians who had previously opposed Head Start: Moynihan called the bill “an essential element of the President’s proposal,” and more than one-third of the bill’s cosponsors were Republican.212 Thus, Nixon’s welfare reform proposal provided Head Start supporters the best chance yet of extending the Head Start model to all poor families and eventually of providing a Head Start-like child care system to serve all three- and four-year-old children, separate from the public schools.

But the hopes of Head Start supporters were short lived. By mid-1971, it was clear that Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan did not have enough support to pass, and bipartisan support for the child care bill faded. Democrats inserted language requiring all child care programs funded by the bill to follow the model of community action programs—a sure way to earn Nixon’s opposition—as they passed the bill. At the same time, conservative activists flooded the White House with mail urging Nixon to veto the child care bill. Nixon consented to conservative wishes and instructed speech writer Pat Buchanan to “put in what the right wing wants to hear” in the veto message.213 Nixon’s December veto message attacked the “family-weakening implications” of public child care and attacked Head Start for being a “management problem” because of requirements to involve parents created an administrative headache.214 Such stern rhetoric ended any chances for bipartisan agreement on Head Start or child care legislation. Mondale and Brademas tried to reintroduce sections of the bill, but those bills never emerged from committees.215 The old balance of power remained: Head Start funding could not be increased nor cut and its spin-offs could not get off the ground. This balance of power was aptly demonstrated during the one overt effort to eliminate Head Start. In 1971, the Office of Management and Budget summoned Zigler to a meeting where they informed him of a new administration plan: to begin phasing out Head Start in fiscal year 1972. The White House soon retracted that proposal after congressional leaders and even some administration officials (including Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Elliot Richardson) announced their opposition.216


The inability to expand Head Start does not indicate political failure. Rather, its survival and eventual growth, while other programs (including those it influenced) died or remained small, testifies to its political success. After Nixon’s Presidency, Head Start never faced another threat to its survival. Ronald Reagan identified it as one of the key elements of the social safety net that he would not cut. Throughout the 1990s and into 2000, Head Start’s budget has continually grown, and calls for full funding (a code phrase for enough funding to serve all eligible children) have been hallmarks of congressional and presidential campaigns. In January, 2000, The New York Times Magazine reported that Head Start is “thought of as the one Great Society program that really worked.”217

Head Start survived because a coalition formed that had sufficient power to resist various threats to its existence. Lyndon Johnson, a master coalition builder, consciously put together civil rights activists and expert-advocates to design and implement Head Start. Those groups disagreed on many key issues but were united by their desire to reform American education. However, none of the policy makers foresaw the precise role of the third crucial part of the Head Start coalition: Head Start parents. While experts and activists argued over how to incorporate parents into the program, parents experienced Head Start in a way that neither side predicted, and that led to parents’ lasting and effective political support.

Today, survival is not an issue. Coupled with its coalition, more than two decades’ worth of positive research has kept Head Start alive and earned it bipartisan support. The Head Start coalition—expert-advocates, civil rights activists, and parents—remains, as is evident in its organization in reaction to President Bush’s proposals regarding the program. The coalition’s inherent tensions continue, as does its remarkable strength.


Education reform is a political enterprise. Head Start’s political history—how it was born, how it grew, how it survived, and how it thrived over time—has implications for, contemporary reform efforts, especially efforts on behalf of young children, and academic research into those efforts.


In an era of big government, Head Start anticipated the local-national-private partnerships of many programs from this generation. By requiring local delegate agencies to obtain a portion of their budget through local donations (cash or in-kind), Head Start centers were required to engage families and communities, as evidenced by the outpouring of support from various civic organizations and the thousands of volunteers in Head Start centers. This success lends credence to the idea that other federal programs such as AmeriCorps (which requires a budgetary match from local organizations it funds) can mobilize, without burying in red tape, citizens’ energy, and altruism.


When children leave Head Start, they enter public elementary schools that face numerous challenges and typically have poor records. This reality has caused tension since Head Start’s inception, tension which remains today even though the idea of a separate school system for Head Start children is long dead. Sarah Greene, president of the NHSA recently complained, “most of the schools our kids go to [after Head Start] are rated the lowest anywhere. They go into a situation with one teacher and 35 kids after two teachers for 15 or 17.”218 First, this issue deserves further study. Do the public schools that children attend after Head Start impact their development over their childhood? Second, public schools can learn lessons from Head Start’s success. Offering comprehensive services to children and involving families could increase children’s academic performance. Indeed, the success of efforts like Zigler’s Schools of the 21st Century indicate that schools must focus on more than academics if we expect them to effectively combat poverty. More broadly, members of the Head Start community and other early childhood reformers should seek to create institutions that can work with, not against, public schools and, in doing so, help improve public schools and improve services to children throughout their lives in school.219


Head Start implements a two-generational approach to lifting families out of poverty. What evidence exists indicates that Head Start has a profound impact on parents of children enrolled in the program. The challenge to policy makers is to ensure that this impact on parents results in increased support for the school success of their children. Although scores of studies examine the impact of Head Start on children, relatively few examine the impact on parent, and most of those rely on anecdotes from a small number of Head Start centers. This is clearly an area for further research. From what is known, policy makers should realize that it makes little sense to talk about children’s school readiness without including their families. Involving families should result in social bonds and increased self-confidence among parents, both of which can help them support their children’s development in school and lift their families out of poverty. Current efforts to expand public early childhood education programs should include family involvement components, especially in programs serving low-income communities.


Any publicly funded program needs to contend with the reality of securing sustainable funding in times of budget surpluses and budget cuts. Head Start built a coalition that ensured its survival when similar programs fell to the budget ax. People interested in expanding early childhood education opportunities, increasing parental control in education and broader education reform should seek to build coalitions among education experts, community activists, and families of children served. An effective coalition that engages multiple constituencies can help ensure long-term survival and expansion. Finally, politicians seeking to reform Head Start and similar programs, such as politicians from both parties seeking to increase academic standards in Head Start, should take into account coalitions supporting those programs. Politicians should carefully choose their rhetoric and prioritize their proposals so they do not arouse the distrust and opposition of coalitions. For instance, President George W. Bush could have great success enhancing academic standards of Head Start if he makes that effort a higher priority than moving Head Start out of HHS and stops using rhetoric that implies the program does not currently prepare children for school.

JOSH KAGAN is a student at the New York University School of Law, where he is the Women, Children & Families Scholar in the Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Law program. Following his interest in education policy, especially early childhood education policy, and twentieth century American political and social history, he wrote this essay as his senior thesis in history at Yale College. As a student at Yale, he worked for Jumpstart, an AmeriCorps program that recruits college students to mentor children who are struggling in their Head Start classrooms. As a Jumpstart Corps Member, he taught children in New Haven, Connecticut, for three years, before joining Jumps tart’s staff, helping to manage Jumpstart programs in New Haven and Syracuse before working on Jumpstart’s National Program Team at its national office in Boston, Massachusetts. He also has worked at the National Organization for Women’s National Action Center in Washington, B.C., focusing on child care and early childhood education public policy.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 3, 2002, p. 516-562
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10847, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 10:57:30 AM

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  • Josh Kagan
    Jumpstart for Young Children/Yale University
    E-mail Author
    JOSH KAGAN is a student at the New York University School of Law, where he is the Women, Children & Families Scholar in the Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Law program. Following his interest in education policy, especially early childhood education policy, and twentieth century American political and social history, he wrote this essay as his senior thesis in history at Yale College. As a student at Yale, he worked for Jumpstart, an AmeriCorps program that recruits college students to mentor children who are struggling in their Head Start classrooms. As a Jumpstart Corps Member, he taught children in New Haven, Connecticut, for three years, before joining Jumpstartís staff, helping to manage Jumpstart programs in New Haven and Syracuse before working on Jumpstartís National Program Team at its national office in Boston, Massachusetts. He also has worked at the National Organization for Womenís National Action Center in Washington, D.C., focusing on child care and early childhood education public policy.
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