Head Start: Vision and Reality

Head Start: Vision and Reality

Head Start was born in a state of contradiction that thirty six years of struggle and reform have failed to overcome. Conceived in the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was established in 1965 to “eliminate poverty in the United States,” Head Start was to be the palatable spearhead in the OEO’s extensive plans to open up poor communities to social action programs aimed at adults.

Maximum Feasible Participation
Early OEO director Sargent Shriver hit upon the idea of a summer school and pre kindergarten for poor children as the OEO was struggling against the suspicion of paternalism its other programs aroused, as well as against the misgivings of conservative journalists and politicians, who were apprehensive about what they considered to be the OEO’s radical agenda. At a time when other OEO programs were receiving bad press, Shriver’s plan was to implement a program that would advance underprivileged three and four year olds to a level of educational readiness on par with their middle class counterparts, while providing their families with health services, job training, and other resources. Given the climate of the civil rights movement, increasing concern with American poverty, and widely discussed studies showing the first few years of life to be crucial for later development, Shriver knew that Head Start was likely to win public support to a degree that his legal aid and other programs had not. He thought that racism clouded perceptions about welfare programs and hoped that focusing on children would alleviate its stigma.

The curriculum drafted for Head Start was meant to provide poor children with the academic stimulation and physical care every child needs to advance—it was to be a “head start” toward the learning customary for more privileged children of the same age. Its founders believed that success was only possible by involving parents in the program, which was in line with the OEO’s maxim of “maximum feasible participation.” The new program would serve as a back door to bring the poor into community action programs. Not only would parents come to know the OEO through Head Start involvement, but their children’s continued positive development after Head Start would be ensured by the impact of that involvement on the parents themselves. But the nature of parent participation was a matter of debate between those who thought that parents needed to acquire childcare and homemaking skills and those who held that they should be equal partners in the administration of the program. The resulting ambivalence was reflected in Head Start literature and policy manuals, which were heavy on calls for parents’ involvement and vague about the ways parents might actually become involved.

Still, even Shriver was surprised at how quickly Head Start acquired public support; in the first summer, hundreds of volunteers and OEO workers set up more than two thousand centers serving mo...