What’s ahead for Head Start?

by Megan Carolan, Director for Policy Research

Last fall, ICS released a paper looking at Head Start specifically in the South, comparing the program both to national statistics as well as looking at differences by state in the region. Because Head Start is implemented at the

Lady Bird Johnson Visiting a Classroom for Project Head Start, 03/19/1966

Lady Bird Johnson Visiting a Classroom for Project Head Start, 1966. Used under Creative Commons license from the U.S. National Archives.

local level using federal dollars, the state and regional perspective is often missing from conversations on how the program is serving children. The paper, which was covered by Education Week, used data reports required by the Administration for Children and Families and found:

  • Enrollment: Head Start programs enroll about 5 % of the South’s 2-to 5-year-olds, on track with the national average. However, the reach that Head Start has varies in each state in the South, ranging from only 3% in Virginia to 14% in Mississippi. It is worth noting that some states and localities may run Head Start in collaboration with other early childhood offerings, such as pre-K or child care.
  • Schedule: 72% of students in the South are enrolled in 5 day, full-day programs. Head Start announced new rules in 2016 that will require all program nationwide to begin following this schedule on a designated timeline. This transition will likely be easier in the South than elsewhere in the country; however, some programs offering fewer hours may need additional support and funding to meet this new standard.
  • Demographics: There is no clear trend in racial demographics in individual Southern states. For example, 84% of Head Start children in West Virginia are White; 78% of South Carolina’s participants are Black.
  • Teacher credentials: The 2007 reauthorization required that at least 50% of Head Start teachers nationwide hold a baccalaureate or advanced degree in Early Childhood Education or equivalent. Nationwide, Head Start programs have exceeded the Bachelor’s degree requirement including every state in the South.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) recently released comprehensive profiles of the Head Start program in each state across the country, looking at a range of characteristics. Similar to ICS’s findings of variability across the region, NIEER found:

“Despite the fact that Head Start is a federally funded, national program, the report reveals that access to Head Start programs, funding per child, teacher education, quality of teaching, and duration of services all vary widely by state. Although in some states Head Start meets evidence-based quality standards and serves a high percentage of low-income children statewide, in other states Head Start reaches fewer of those in need, often with low-quality instruction, and insufficient hours.”

These data points naturally lead to one question: how do we ensure that children are receiving top-notch services from Head Start programs, no matter where they are served? A recent interview with Deborah Phillips, a researcher who has extensively studied the successful Tulsa Head Start program, gives us some guidance:

“I would not describe the Head Start program in Tulsa as “exceptional,” because the national Head Start program has been moving over this decade in the direction that Tulsa has arrived, namely, requiring higher teacher qualifications…. Money flows from commitment. We spend money on the things we care most about and I’m hopeful that these very encouraging results will reassure people that high-quality preschool is the first step in fulfilling the promise of America’s education system.”

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