Head Start programs promote school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income families by supporting the development of the whole child.

Source of definition: Office of Head Start, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

IECAM provides data for the following programs: Head Start, Early Head Start, and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start.


Head Start has provided comprehensive early childhood developmental services to children from low-income families since its inception in 1965. The Office of Head Start is located organizationally in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), Administration for Children & Families (ACF). Head Start supports school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families.

In 1998, Head Start was reauthorized for fiscal years 1999-2003. In subsequent years, Head Start was funded through the annual appropriations process. In 2007, Head Start was again reauthorized for FY2008.

The 2007 reauthorization of Head Start, which affects the operation of Head Start for FY2008, intends to improve the program’s ability to promote school readiness of children from low-income families. Changes in the Head Start Act encompass a wide range of provisions, covering:

  • Program funding, governance, and accountability
    The amended Act requires grantees to compete for funding every 5 years. Previously, grantees were not limited to funding periods before re-competition was required. The amended Head Start Act further defines what constitutes a “high-performing” grantee—programs that demonstrate competent financial management as well as the implementation of high quality, developmentally appropriate service delivery. The new language also requires programs’ governing bodies to include individuals with expertise in early childhood, fiscal management, and law. In addition, the amended legislation includes language emphasizing the use of scientifically-based research as a foundation for assessment, as well as the implementation of developmentally appropriate resources.
  • Eligibility
    In previous iterations of Head Start legislation, all children from families with income under 100% of the federal poverty level (FPL) were eligible for the program. The amended legislation allows for eligibility up to 130% FPL (not to exceed 35% of enrollment), although priority is still given to families at or below 100% FPL. Homeless children are also considered eligible. Head Start programs are also expected to promote service delivery to children and families with limited English proficiency.
  • Quality
    Head Start personnel have particular specifications regarding education and credentials. Standards for teachers have increased, with 50% having a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) by 2013. Likewise, teaching assistants are to have a CDA, be enrolled in a CDA program, or be enrolled in an associates or bachelor’s degree program.
  • Collaboration and coordination
    Programs are mandated to reach out to local education agencies and other public agencies responsible for the operation of other publicly-funded preschools (e.g., pre-kindergarten), with the expressed purpose of entering into a memorandum of understanding with these agencies in the same service area.

For the text of the revised Head Start Act, and for regulations related to program performance standards, see appropriate pages on the Office of Head Start Web site.