Influence of Science on Public Policy Related to the Early Childhood Education

The relationship between science and public policy related to early childhood education is not always direct. Each program or policy has a unique story that is grounded in varying contexts. In most cases there are windows of opportunity that allow scientific inquiry, societal attitudes, and individual champions to play an influential role. Aspects of the relationship between research and policy in ЕСЕ may be captured in the stories of three major ЕСЕ programs: (1) Head Start, (2) the Child Care Development Fund, and (3) state-funded preschool.

Head Start: Inspired by Research; The Catalyst for a New Research Base

As mentioned previously, in the 1960s the United States was also growing increasingly aware of widespread poverty, especially among young children, and its negative implications for early development and learning. When President Lyndon Johnson’s administration waged a War on Poverty in the 1960s, the wellbeing of young children took a prominent position.


In 1959, the national poverty rate was over 22 percent; in 1964 it was 19 percent; and by 1974, after President Johnson’s War on Poverty, it dropped to 11.2 percent. In 1959, the poverty rate for African Americans was 55.1 percent and by 1969 it dropped to 32.2 percent ( poverty- in-thc-50-years-smce-the-othcr-america -in-five-charts/?utm_term=.b57fl20aefb0). In 1959, the child poverty rate was 27.3 percent; in 1964 it was 23 percent; and by 1969 it was 14 percent ( 2014/01/13/whos-poor-in-america-50-years-into-the-war-on-poverty-a-data-portrait/).

With studies supporting the hypothesis that intelligence was not fixed and the right interventions could ameliorate the impact of child poverty, the US federal government instituted the Head Start program in 1965 within the then Office of Economic Opportunity. The Head Start program included comprehensive health, nutrition, education, and parent involvement services to children and their families. President Johnson stated that Head Start “set out to make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives......

children are inheritors of poverty’s course and not its creators. Unless we act these children will pass it on to the next generation.”[1] Although Head Start was initiated as a 6-week summer program to prepare children for kindergarten, it soon become clear that overcoming the early impacts of poverty would require significantly more time. As the program progressed, Head Start grantees operated for a half-day for 10-11 months a year and with new regulations programs are transitioning to full-day, full-year.

From Head Start’s inception, communities and neighbourhoods were seen as partners in the effort to mitigate the impacts of poverty. Now under the US Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start funds still flow directly from the federal government to public or private community-based agencies. With over 1,700 public and private agency grantees, the program’s budget has grown significantly, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 provided $9.17 billion for Head Start in the fiscal year 2016. Through 1,700 grantees, the Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide services to over one million children a year.

Research on Head Start: Is the Program Effective?

From the early phases of the Head Start program, research was commissioned to answer the overarching question of whether participation in Head Start resulted in significantly improved child outcomes. The 1969 Westinghouse Study found marginal effects on children’s cognitive development and questioned the effectiveness of the Head Start program. Concerns with the study design led to a re-analysis of the data by Smith and Bissell (1970). They found that children who needed the program the most demonstrated the largest gains. Subsequent research has since determined that the 1969 study was prematurely done, poorly designed, lacked statistical sophistication, and, with hindsight, was too narrowly focused on cognitive outcomes (Campbell & Erlebacher, 1970; Zigler, Styfco, & Gilman, 1993; Zigler & Valentine, 1979). Such investigations continued into the 1980s and found both short- and long-term effects of Head Start not only on children’s cognitive development but also on children’s health and social development (Cole & Washington, 1986; Darlington, Royce, Snipper, Murray, & Lazar, 1980; Lee, Brooks-Gunn, & Schnur, 1988; McKey, 1985; Wu & Campbell, 1996; Zigler & Berman, 1983).

Yet, findings also suggested that the effects of Head Start were not entirely sustained in the long term (Lazar & Darlington, 1982; Lee, Brooks-Gunn, Schnur, & Liaw, 1990; McKey, 1985). In the 1990s results suggested that the so-called fade-out effect for Head Start might be due to quality differences in subsequent elementary schooling or the home environment (Entwisle, 1995; Lee et al., 1990). Therefore, while research continued to examine whether participation in Head Start programs produced sustained effects, new research questions were linking children’s progress to the quality of both Head Start and early elementary classrooms.

  • [1] 2 TJie 2016 Head Start Program Performance standards require that all Head Start center-based programs offer at least 1,020 annual hours of service for preschoolers by August 1, 2021, with at least 50 percent of such preschool slots meeting this requirement by August 1, 2019. 3 4
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