Head Start. You can’t talk about early childhood education without mentioning the iconic government program designed to give disadvantaged preschoolers, well, a head start. But for many of us, we never think about the program until Congress, or more specifically political conservatives, threaten to either cut or eliminate the program. But what exactly is Head Start? Who created it and has it been an effective early education program for African-Americans?

Head Start has its origins in the mid 1960s Great Society programs of the Lyndon Johnson administration. After declaring a War on Poverty, President Johnson created a series of domestic programs designed to eliminate systemic poverty in the United States. Out of these Great Society initiatives came Medicare, the Neighborhood Youth Corp, the Food Stamp program, and an early education program for economically disadvantaged five and 6-year-olds called Head Start.

Established under the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Head Start was one of the first federally funded educational programs, as education funding had traditionally been the responsibility of state governments. With half of the nation’s poor being children, Johnson’s emphasis on education was meant to break the cycle of poverty guaranteeing a poor education.

To date, over 25 million children have participated in Head Start programs, with billions spent in over a thousand local cities and towns throughout the country. Usually the darling of liberal Democrats and education minded Republicans, Head Start is not without its critics.

Some critics of Head Start say that the program has been nothing more than a show pony program, contending that the educational gains that Head Start children receive, are temporary and ineffective. And with the proliferation of privately run pre-school programs, Head Start critics like the conservative Heritage Foundation argue that the Head Start program is “a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars and an ineffective education program for children”.

Supporters counter that Head Start provides an invaluable education to children who would be otherwise either be not in school, or receiving an education with varying standards. And these supporters dispute that Head Start children don’t retain their education by the third grade. So who is right?

The United States Health and Human Services released a January 2010 report, the Head Start Impact Study, which addressed both sides of the argument. And the results gave a little bit to both sides of the Head Start argument.

The Head Start Impact Study looked at children who attended Head Start program, and those who attended childcare services and non-Head Start pre school classes from 2002-03. The non-Head Start kids provided the control group for the study, and the results were conclusive. Children who attended Head Start outperformed their non-Head Start peers in cognitive and emotional impacts. By the time they left the problem, they were ready for elementary school.

“Providing access to Head Start has a positive impact on children’s preschool experiences,” says the study. “There are statistically significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on every measure of children’s preschool experiences measured in this study.”

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the study also finds that much of those educational gains are gone by not the third grade, but by the first grade. That appears on the surface to strengthen the conservative argument that Head Start isn’t really effective. I have a different take.

Even though Head Start is a federally funded program, it is administered locally, which means there are going to be variances in the quality of the programs. And as the study shows, most Head Start children enter schools more prepared than their peers. But what type of elementary schools are these young students entering? Based on what we know about inner city, impoverished schools in African-American community, they are typically without the resources to continue the momentum that Head Start provided. The achievement gap between black and white children can be mitigated by Head Start, but is only the beginning and not that end of solution.