Head Start: A history of implementation

Gretchen Aguiar, University of Pennsylvania


America fought a war on poverty—and preschool won. Born of an optimistic vision of a nation without want, Head Start has stood the test of time to become a fixture of the welfare state. Yet despite the program’s significance and staying power, historians have yet to bring critical attention to how the idea of preschools became a grassroots reality. This study will go beyond “top-down” analysis to look at Head Start as implemented, detailing the complicated interplay of local politics and federal power that shaped the program’s purposes. In the rush to rollout a headline-grabbing program, the preschools were launched without a clear set of rules to govern grassroots initiatives. Key decisions about policy remained unanswered: Who should be eligible? How would the program confront racial segregation? How, exactly, could preschools fight poverty? These crucial questions got answered after the fact, as programs across the country opened their doors. Advocates, parents, and staff at the local level held conflicting theories of poverty that challenged expert ideas and official policy about the purposes of preschool. In a set of interlocking chapters, this dissertation details the contested process by which local politics met federal authority—transforming Head Start in the process. My signal contribution is this insistence that Head Start wasn’t born of experts or in Congress, but was made through negotiations between the grassroots and the state. This critical history reveals a contentious national debate about policy for the poor that reshapes understandings of both the preschool program and of the broader War on Poverty. On the eve of Head Start’s fiftieth anniversary, this project not only explains how it came to be, but considers policy roads not taken and what the program could become.

Subject Area

American history|Early childhood education|Education history

Recommended Citation

Aguiar, Gretchen, "Head Start: A history of implementation" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3508961.