The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations

Justin Torres

Maris A. Vinovskis, University of Chicago Press
2005

A professor of history and public policy at the University of Michigan, Vinovskis has written what will surely stand forever as the history of the early years of Head Start. Fair warning: This book is dense, with sub-headings like "The Gardener Task Force and Early Childhood Education" and extended discussions of long-forgotten policy symposia. But veteran federal ed-policy tracker and chronicler Vinovskis is excellent at demonstrating just how fly-by-night Head Start was in its early years, with rows of bureaucrats rubber-stamping questionable program proposals because the Johnson administration needed to demonstrate the program's political viability and popular appeal. The roots of the present questions facing Head Start are well-documented in this book. To wit: Is it a child development or school readiness program, fundamentally? Can program quality actually be maintained across thousands of individual sites? And why exactly does Health and Human Services run it? These were, in fact, questions being asked as early as the first summer. The author also recounts a whole series of early attacks on Head Start from the left: community action groups such as ACORN and assorted Saul Alinksy outfits were disappointed that Head Start didn't explicitly seek to inculcate tots in the virtues of social justice, political marching, and root-causes-of-poverty activism. Vinovskis also (delicately but firmly) points fingers at some of the Head Start pioneers - especially the venerable Sargent Shriver - whose enthusiasm for early childhood education exceeded their education savvy and administrative competence, and whose shortcomings as managers doomed the program to 30 years of at-best-fitful effectiveness. Given the enormous volume of information in this book, perhaps we shouldn't grump that it doesn't get any further than 1968, but one hopes Vinovskis will eventually bring his masterly account up to date. The ISBN is 0-226-85671-2 and you can order it here.