Last week, the largest US program for early childhood development turned 50 years. The program, called Head Start, serves over one million children each year and it provides comprehensive services (education, nutrition, health, and parenting) to low-income children and families.

Head Start operates through over 1700 community agencies, which act as grantees, receiving funds and oversight from the central program office. Grantees are required to match 20% of the funds they receive through cash or in-kind contributions and are in charge of the operation of services in the communities. 80% of the children in Head Start are 3-4 year olds receiving preschool services. The remaining 20% are pregnant mothers, infants and toddlers (0-2 years old) in Early Head Start. The Program offers a range of service modalities and managed a budget of 7.6 billion dollars in 2013.

I had the enormous privilege of talking to Lynn Kagan, a professor of Early Childhood and Family Policies at Yale and Columbia Universities. She is widely recognized in the world of early childhood policy for her contributions in the US and internationally. But Lynn also has a very special personal story that is closely related to Head Start. In fact, her career in early childhood began as a Head Start teacher, the same year the program was created and she later became the Program Director in the Program’s early years.

How has Head Started shaped your career and your thinking about policy and child development?

Head Start has been seminal in forming who I am. A lot of people who were involved in the beginning of Head Start would probably say the same about themselves. Head Start gave us a philosophy that really respected all domains of development. It gave us a philosophy that accorded hegemony to parents and families, with incredible respect for parents as teachers of their own children. It also gave us an enormous respect for the role of research.  I fell in love with research because of the research element of Head Start: we carried out research that had a meaning, which had practical applicability.

What does the 50th birthday of Head Start mean to you?

Head Start has spearheaded a revolution in American early childhood education. The fruits of its genius transcend the program itself.

Head Start emerged out of a major social need. It was part of the country’s war on poverty: the desire to intervene in the lives of very young children as soon as possible with the goal of curtailing the corrosive effects of poverty. At the outset, it was seen as an anti-poverty program that delivered child development services. Child development was always important, but the program was deeply embedded in the fabric of poor communities. Parents had a major voice and were majority stakeholders in policy councils. All this was very revolutionary at the time. That level of parent engagement had not been seen in elementary or secondary education.

This embryonic program that emerged in the summer of 1965 has grown to become a major program influencing policies in this country and in other countries. So in celebrating the 50 years of Head Start, I celebrate the emergence of a vision, the growth of an idea, the expansion of thinking about early childhood, and the enormous contributions of one single program to early childhood education globally.

What are some of the most important contributions of Head Start?

One of the main contributions of Head Start was the genius of the design of the program. I talked already about the role of parents and the community. But the fact that it really was conceptualized at the outset as a comprehensive program that needed to address children’s health, and their social, emotional, and intellectual well-being. This was very new at that time. It was a herculean effort, an audacious experiment!

To help move the effort forward – and this is the genius of Ed Zigler and other social scientists involved in the formation of Head Start- when Head Start began, it had two major components. One was an operational or a programmatic component and the second was a research one. The idea was that we would use Head Start as a national laboratory for learning about children and about child development. We would launch model efforts, evaluate them, and if indeed they were successful, we would incorporate them back into the fundamental program. Research was learning from practice and practice was informing research. This was another brilliant component.

What are the commonalities and differences between the birth of Head Start and initiatives emerging in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) to think about early childhood comprehensively?

The motivations, the desire, the fervency of it all, is common to both the early days of Head Start and much of what LAC is experiencing as it expands services to young children and their families.

Despite these similarities, there is one big difference: today, much of the rationale for investing in young children is based on economics. It is a worthy, cost-effective intervention that, when done well, saves societies money. At the beginning of Head Start, we didn’t have econometric data; the motivation emanated from a social obligation to improve the plight of the poor. The other difference is that at the time when Head Start was launched, it was really the only publicly funded program—the only game in town. To be sure, there were private providers serving those who could pay, but Head Start was designed for those who couldn’t afford quality services. Then, we didn’t have the sense that our goal was to serve every child, this debate about targeted vs. universal was not present. The notion was that we were going to serve those most in need, no questions asked.

Today, there seems to be more debate about the nature of early childhood services than there was back then, largely because today there are more options; home visiting, family based services, full and part-day center services, etc.. So not only the motivation is more economic now but the shape and texture of what could be delivered under the umbrella of early childhood services is broader. This gives countries in LAC and throughout the world many more programmatic options and demands many more tough decisions.

What can LAC learn from Head Start?

The principles that guided the development and evolution of Head Start are key: comprehensiveness, holistic, parent engagement, community embeddedness, and practical experimentation (the whole research side of it). My wish is that all these elements could move into an overall program designed for countries in LAC.

Head Start was born in an era where the nature of the intervention was that of a program. We are now in an era where the nature of the intervention has got to be conceptualized as a system. We didn’t have that frame at the time. That makes it more challenging for the countries in LAC because we know that if you develop an isolated program, it becomes a separated piece. The pathway towards quality and equity is not by creating a flow of separate little programs, but by creating quality and equity for all children.

Have you ever heard about Head Start? Do you have a program similar to Head Start in your country? We are looking forward to read your comments in this blog and in twitter.

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