Head Start Act

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Head Start Act


By: U.S. Congress

Date: 1981

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. "Compilation of the Head Start Act." <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/hsb/budget/headstartact.htm> (accessed June 2, 2006).

About the Author: The U.S. Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is a Washington, D.C.-based federal agency that is responsible for the health of all of the nation's citizens, through the provision of necessary human services. The Office of Head Start is located within the Administration for Children and Families of HHS.


The Head Start program began in 1964, when the U.S. government, concerned that many of the nation's poorer children were at a disadvantage by the time they began public school, invited a group of experts in child development to devise a program to help these preschool-aged children learn the skills necessary to be prepared for elementary school educations. The initial program ran for eight weeks during the summer of 1965 and covered educational, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs for children aged three and over who came from low-income families. Because of the positive response from educators, parents, and child development specialists, the program was expanded to cover all fifty states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories. It is run by the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).



Sec. 641A. [42 U.S.C. 9836A] (a) QUALITY STANDARDS.—

  1. ESTABLISHMENT OF STANDARDS.—The Secretary shall establish by regulation standards, including minimum levels of overall accomplishment, applicable to Head Start agencies, programs, and projects under this subchapter, including—
    1. performance standards with respect to services required to be provided, including health, parental involvement, nutritional, social, transition activities described in section 642(d), and other services;
      1. education performance standards to ensure the school readiness of children participating in a Head Start program, on completion of the Head Start program and prior to entering school; and
      2. additional education performance standards to ensure that the children participating in the program, at a minimum—
        1. develop phonemic, print, and numeracy awareness;
        2. understand and use language to communicate for various purposes;
        3. understand and use increasingly complex and varied vocabulary;
        4. develop and demonstrate an appreciation of books; and
        5. in the case of non-English background children, progress toward acquisition of the English language.
  2. administrative and financial management standards;
  3. standards relating to the condition and location of facilities for such agencies, programs, and projects; and
  4. such other standards as the Secretary finds to be appropriate.
  1. CONSIDERATIONS IN DEVELOPING STANDARDS.— In developing the regulations required under paragraph (1), the Secretary shall—
    1. consult with experts in the fields of child development, early childhood education, family services (including linguistically and culturally appropriate services to non-English language background children and their families), administration, and financial management, and with persons with experience in the operation of Head Start programs;
    2. take into consideration—
      1. past experience with use of the standards in effect on the date of enactment of this section;
      2. changes over the period since the date of enactment of this Act in the circumstances and problems typically facing children and families served by Head Start agencies;
      3. developments concerning best practices with respect to early childhood education and development, children with disabilities, family services, program administration, and financial management;
      4. projected needs of an expanding Head Start program;
      5. guidelines and standards currently in effect or under consideration that promote child health services and projected needs of expanding Head Start programs;
      6. changes in the population of children who are eligible to participate in Head Start programs, including the language background and family structure of such children; and
      7. the need for, and state-of-the-art developments relating to, local policies and activities designed to ensure that children participating in Head Start programs make a successful transition to public schools; and
      1. review and revise as necessary the performance standards in effect under this subsection; and
      2. ensure that any such revisions in the performance standards will not result in the elimination of or any reduction in the scope or types of health, education, parental involvement, nutritional, social, or other services required to be provided under such standards as in effect on the date of enactment of the Coats Human Services Reauthorization Act of 1998.
  2. STANDARDS RELATING TO OBLIGATIONS TO DELEGATE AGENCIES.—In developing standards under this subsection, the Secretary shall describe the obligations of a Head Start agency to a delegate agency to which the Head Start agency has delegated responsibility for providing services under this subchapter and determine whether the Head Start agency complies with the standards. The Secretary shall consider such compliance during the review described in subsection (c)(1)(A) and in determining whether to renew financial assistance to the Head Start agency under this subchapter.
    1. IN GENERAL.—The Secretary, in consultation with representatives of Head Start agencies and with experts in the fields of early childhood education and development, family services, and program management, shall develop methods and procedures for measuring, annually and over longer periods, the quality and effectiveness of programs operated by Head Start agencies, and the impact of services provided through the programs to children and their families (referred to in this subchapter as "results-based performance measures").
    2. CHARACTERISTICS OF MEASURES.—The performance measures developed under this subsection shall—
      1. be used to assess the impact of the various services provided by Head Start programs and, to the extent the Secretary finds appropriate, administrative and financial management practices of such programs;
      2. be adaptable for use in self-assessment, peer review, and program evaluation of individual Head Start agencies and programs, not later than July 1, 1999; and
      3. be developed for other program purposes as determined by the Secretary.

        The performance measures shall include the performance standards described in subsection (a)(1)(B)(ii).

    3. USE OF MEASURES.—The Secretary shall use the performance measures developed pursuant to this subsection—
      1. to identify strengths and weaknesses in the operation of Head Start programs nationally, regionally and locally; and
      2. to identify problem areas that may require additional training and technical assistance resources.
    4. EDUCATIONAL PERFORMANCE MEASURES.—Such results-based performance measures shall include educational performance measures that ensure that children participating in Head Start programs—
      1. know that letters of the alphabet are a special category of visual graphics that can be individually named;
      2. recognize a word as a unit of print;
      3. identify at least 10 letters of the alphabet; and
      4. associate sounds with written words.

      In addition to other applicable results-based performance measures, Head Start agencies may establish local results-based educational performance measures.


Child development experts agree that the first few years of a child's life are vital. Skills acquired during these years form the basis for future learning and educational progress throughout childhood and adolescence. Preschool programs help many children gain these skills, but low-income children, whose parents cannot afford the tuition charged by most preschools, are unable to benefit from this early educational environment. As a result, these children miss out on the opportunity to socialize with their peers in a structured environment, to acquire basic early reading and counting skills, and to grow emotionally by following instructions, working with others, and learning how to function independently outside of the home. The Head Start program aims to make certain that these low-income children do not fall behind before they even begin to attend public school by providing them with the skills and experiences necessary for the next step in the learning process.

The Head Start Act provides sponsoring agencies with guidelines for precisely what the children are to learn and how to track their progress and the effectiveness of the program. Minimum accomplishments are expected for every child in the program, including an awareness of their letters and numbers, an appreciation for books, improved vocabulary, problem solving skills, and an improved understanding of English for foreign students. In addition, the Head Start program provides children with supplemental nutrition; instruction in health care and maintenance, such as the importance of washing hands and brushing teeth; and encouragement to socialize successfully with their peers and to form strong relationships with family members.

Strict guidelines are maintained on who may run a Head Start program, and the Head Start Act specifies the required credentials for teachers, parameters for grants and funding, procedures for operation of the programs, eligibility of participants, and how to handle special needs, such as those of disabled children. HHS also tracks the program on a national basis to determine what aspects are working and what require modification. A 2005 HHS report found that the Head Start program was succeeding in preparing low-income students for public school. The study showed that students' pre-reading scores increased by half following a year in the Head Start program, and that general literacy, vocabulary, and pre-writing abilities also improved. Oral skills improved less overall, indicating an area of the program that requires strengthening. The study also followed the Head Start students into kindergarten, where even more significant improvement in reading and writing skills were documented. By the first grade, the report found, the gap between the Head Start students and other students had been nearly eradicated. Earlier exposure to educational activities appears to provide these students with a foundation on which to build future academic success.

Head Start has encountered occasional political challenges, including changes to the quality and accountability guidelines in 1998 and the Head Start Accountability Act of 2005, an amendment designed to make individual agencies participating in the program more fiscally accountable. The program also requires regular reauthorization by the U.S. Congress, which is designed to maintain accountability to the federal government as well as high standards. Congress is able to alter the parameters under which the program functions during this reauthorization process, and some proposed changes have included moving the program to the authority of a different federal agency or shifting the responsibility for the program from the federal government to the individual states. At the present, however, the Head Start program has demonstrated its success in its current form, and it continues to receive authorization and funding.



Schorr, Lisbeth B.The Head Start Debates. Baltimore, Md.: Brookes Publishing Company, 2004.

Segal, Marilyn, et al.All About Child Care and Early Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2005.

Vinovskis, Maris A.The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Web sites

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. "About Head Start." March 3, 2004. <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ hsb/about/index.htm> (accessed June 2, 2006).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. "Head Start 101." July 25, 2002. <http://www.headstartinfo.org/infocenter/hs101. htm> (accessed June 2, 2006).

U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Education and the Workforce. "HHS Study Shows Children in Head Start Better Prepared to Succeed in School." June 9, 2005. <http://www.house.gov/apps/list/press/ed31_ democrats/rel6905.html> (accessed June 2, 2006).