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The Birth of Head Start

Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations

The Birth of Head Start

Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations

One of the most popular and enduring legacies of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, Project Head Start continues to support young children of low-income families-close to one million annually-by providing a range of developmental and educational services. Yet as Head Start reaches its fortieth anniversary, debates over the function and scope of this federal program persist. Although the program’s importance is unquestioned across party lines, the direction of its future—whether toward a greater focus on school readiness and literacy or the continuation of a holistic approach-remains a point of contention.

Policymakers proposing to reform Head Start often invoke its origins to justify their position, but until now no comprehensive political history of the program has existed. Maris A. Vinovskis here provides an in-depth look at the nation’s largest and best known—yet politically challenged—early education program. The Birth of Head Start sets the record straight on the program’s intended aims, documenting key decisions made during its formative years. While previous accounts of Head Start have neglected the contributions of important participants such as federal education officials and members of Congress, Vinovskis’s history is the first to consider the relationship between politics and policymaking and how this interaction has shaped the program. This thorough and incisive book will be essential for policymakers and legislators interested in prekindergarten education and will inform future discussions on early intervention services for disadvantaged children.


"Vinovskis is recognized as the premier historian of children’s programs. His renowned scholarship makes everything he writes must-reading for anyone involved in early childhood issues. The Birth of Head Start is a tremendous contribution to the preservation of the history of our nation’s innovative Head Start program."
--Edward Zigler, cofounder of Head Start

Edward Zigler

"Vinovskis has discovered primary sources that shed much new light on the origins of Head Start. Given the importance of preschool education and the high stakes associated with the Head Start program, Vinovskis’s book deserves to be read by a wide audience. He has produced an impressive piece of scholarship, a major contribution to the field."

Barbara Beatty, author of Preschool Education in America

"Vinovskis’s history of Head Start is a shining example of the importance of understanding the origins of social programs in order to provide a solid ground for future decision making. It shows that the conflict between comprehensive services and school readiness, a debate that is still raging today, has been a part of Head Start from the beginning. It is unlikely that there will ever be another study of the origins of Head Start that is as balanced, probing, and complete as this spectacular volume."

Ron Haskins, The Brookings Institution

"Maris Vinovskis’s study of Head Start is certain to affect debates about the future of the program. Vinovskis’s careful and intelligent review of the intentions of Head Start’s founders is a necessary starting point for anyone who hopes to understand the evolution of the program."

Diane Ravitch, author of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Changing Views of Poverty and Early Child Development
2. Education, Poverty, and Early Schooling in the Kennedy Administration
3. Education Policy, the War on Poverty, and the 1964 Election
4. Organizing OEO and Passing ESEA
5. Implementing, Evaluating, and Improving Head Start Programs
6. Congressional and Administration Debates about Transferring Head Start

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