What Does Head Start Look Like in Your State?

A New Report Reveals Just How Misleading National-Level Statistics Can Be
Blog Post
Dec. 19, 2016

This week, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released the first-ever State(s) of Head Start report which analyzes the nation’s largest early childhood education program in all 50 states, U.S. territories, and Washington, D.C. This comprehensive look at the Head Start program reveals great disparities from state to state when it comes to access, quality of instruction, funding per child, and duration of services. The cause for these disparities? It mostly boils down to inadequate funding.

Because Head Start has a unique federal to local structure-- the grants go directly from the federal government to local providers-- it is rarely analyzed at the state level. But as state early education programs (mainly four-year-old pre-K programs) have grown in recent years, it’s important to understand how program access and quality differ across states. What role does Head Start, the nation’s largest early education program, play in state early education systems? And alternatively, what role, if any, do states play in their Head Start programs? NIEER’s report helps answer these questions.


Nationally, less than 40 percent of eligible three-and four-year-olds attend Head Start. But NIEER reveals how significantly access varies by state. For instance, in Nevada, Head Start is serving only 16 percent of three- and four-year-olds living in poverty. In North Dakota it’s serving 97 percent.

Since most states now have public pre-K programs (five states do not), it’s important to look at Head Start access in a broader context-- some states could have low Head Start enrollment for four-year-olds because there is such high enrollment in state pre-K. Unfortunately, Nevada only serves three percent of four-year-olds in state pre-K. North Dakota doesn’t have a state pre-K program at all. In states with low rates of Head Start and public pre-K access, families in poverty are left with few child care options, leaving them to pay out of pocket for care, stay home with their children, or rely on family, friends, and neighbors.

Early Head Start (EHS) enrollment, which has doubled since 2007, is still extremely low across the country. The program only serves about 5 percent of eligible pregnant women, infants, and toddlers. However, EHS enrollment also varies by state, with D.C. serving the highest percentage of children in poverty, at 13 percent. Nevada comes in last, serving only 2.7 of eligible EHS families. There are very few state-level programs serving infants and toddlers to supplement these low enrollment numbers.

Any eligible family who wants to attend Head Start should be able to. Unfortunately, access is more likely to be a reality in some parts of the country (like North Dakota) than in others. Limited access is especially concerning in states where there are no affordable alternatives.


The data also reveal substantial differences in quality across states. Research has revealed for years that even though all Head Start programs provide comprehensive services and are held to a shared set of performance standards, some programs are better than others. This report gives us a better idea of where those high-quality programs are.

All Head Start programs are required to use the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) to measure the quality of teacher-child interactions. High-quality interactions between adults and children are essential to learning in the earliest years, and thus are a strong indication of program quality.

Across states, Head Start programs are scoring well in CLASS’s Emotional Support domain, which measures teachers’ ability to support children’s social and emotional development. Programs in all states except for South Carolina, are also scoring well in the Classroom Organization domain on average. However, programs in most states performed poorly on CLASS’s Instructional Support domain which measures classroom instruction related to children’s cognitive development. For instance, are Head Start teachers asking children questions that encourage problem solving? The map below shows which states scored significantly below (dark red) and significantly above (dark green) the research-based threshold for quality.

Screen Shot CLASS IS Map.png

Teacher qualifications also differ substantially across states. The National Academy of Medicine’s seminal “Transforming the Workforce” report recommends all lead teachers of young children attain a bachelor’s degree and specialization in early childhood education to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to support young children’s development. Nationally, more than 70 percent of Head Start teachers have bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field, far exceeding the federal requirement of 50 percent. But children in some areas are much more likely to have teachers with this level of formal training and education than others. For instance, 99 percent of DC Head Start teachers have BA’s because this is a requirement for all of the district’s pre-K teachers. But only 36 percent of New Mexico Head Start teachers met this requirement. Nationally, only 30 percent of EHS teachers have a BA in early childhood education.

The unacceptably low pay of early educators makes it difficult to attract and retain teachers to the field-- especially as states call for higher qualifications. Even with BA’s, EHS teachers in 21 states earned less than $30,000 on average. Head Start teachers with BAs also earned less than $30,000 in 15 states. In contrast, elementary school teachers earned $57,092 on average, nationally. NIEER analyzed how Head Start teacher salaries compare to elementary teacher salaries across states and finds substantial discrepancies. Only DC Head Start teachers have pay parity with elementary school teachers.  


Nationally, about 42 percent of Head Start children are being served in full-day, five-day per week programs. Full-day and full-year programs typically yield significantly greater results when it comes to children’s social-emotional and academic development than do half-day or shorter programs. While more time doesn’t necessarily equal higher quality, more hours mean more opportunities for children to receive the kind of high-quality instruction and adult interaction that research suggests is critical for their learning and development.

That’s why, under the new Head Start Performance Standards, all programs will be required to serve children for a minimum of 1,020 hours per year, more than double the duration requirement Head Start programs currently operate under. If the NIEER report is any indication, some programs have significant catching up to do if they are to meet this minimum by 2021 when it goes into effect.

Head Start Dosage.png


Head Start currently receives about $8.4 million per year in federal funding which amounts to $8,038 per child. Yet some programs receive much more or less than that average -- a fact that the authors of the report say is a “variation which is not easily explained” and “neither rational nor fair.” Funding per child in Texas, for example, is $6,747 when adjusted for cost of living. In Oregon, it’s $10,716.

Head Start Funding Per Child.png

There are noticeable regional patterns when it comes to the duration, quality, and funding of Head Start programs.

As shown in the maps above, the states where children are most often in full-day programs are largely concentrated in the south. Yet these states are also the ones scoring lowest on measures of instructional quality and that are generally on the lower end when it comes to funding per child. How do programs in the states that have less funding per child generally deliver more hours of Head Start? And why, when full-day programs are generally associated with higher-quality, do programs in these states score low on measures of instructional quality?

The answer likely rests in the dilemma that early childhood education providers often face: with limited funding, there is only so much they can do. Should they  focus on boosting program and educator quality, serve children for more hours, serve more children, or increase teacher pay? There is rarely funding to do  all of the above. As the report explains, “this forces tradeoffs among quality, duration, and the number of children served. Differences in local decisions regarding these tradeoffs and historical precedent seem the likely causes for the state-by-state variations we observe.”

Or, as co-author Steve Barnett explained to The 74, programs in these states have “likely made the decision to serve more kids for more hours, and that makes it very hard [to have high-quality programs]. If you’re paying teachers $22,000 a year, as they are in Mississippi, that makes it really hard to provide quality. But if you paid your teachers $42,000, you’d have to serve them for half as many hours or serve half as many kids.”

How does Head Start get to a place where providers don’t have to sacrifice one crucial element for another? The report’s authors estimate that providing high-quality, full-day Head Start requires about $10,000 per child. Adjusting for differences in cost of living between states, the authors estimate that to provide this level of quality to all three- and four-year-olds in poverty would require an additional federal investment of $14.4 billion.

The report also calls for greater coordination between Head Start and state and local government agencies. We made a similar recommendation in our Beyond Subprime Learning report, but caution that this should not be done hastily. The idea of increased state control is one that has been advocated for by Tom Price, the nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services -- the agency that administers the program. This issue could become an especially important one if the incoming Congress pursues Head Start reauthorization. Because of the complex nature of the issues raised by this report, NIEER calls for an independent national bipartisan commission to study these issues and “develop an action plan for Head Start in conjunction with all of the other early care and education programs.” This recommendation is a smart one.

Recent research on Head Start has shown that it has lasting, life-long benefits for children. It’s important that all eligible children have access to a high-quality Head Start provider. NIEER’s findings reveal the importance of location and just how misleading national-level statistics can be. The report is full of useful state-level data that we’ll be digging into more in the new year. Like NIEER’s annual State of Preschool Yearbooks, this report is a valuable resource for the field.