Head Start Professionalized the Early Childhood Education Workforce

Sarah Merrill

Did you ever wonder why you need specific professional qualifications to work with young children? Head Start has always known the importance of having qualified, well-trained staff in working with young children. Back in the 60’s, our early Head Start leaders worried that "the goals of … the fullest social, emotional, physical and intellectual development of the child can be missed, sometimes hindered, because the teacher in charge is not qualified" (Project Head Start, 1967, The Staff for a child development center, pp. 8-9). In fact, in 1967 they advised that "ideally teachers in Head Start Programs should be graduates of a four-year college program with a major in Nursery Education, Nursery-Kindergarten Education, or Early Childhood Education" (p. 3) and have the "the personal qualities … [which] are fully as important as her training" (p. 4).

Do You Know?

Quiz: Did you know the child development associate (CDA) credential program was developed with funding from Head Start? It was the first competency-based program designed to create an effective early childhood workforce. Do you know when the CDA program began?

  1. 1972
  2. 1975
  3. 1985
  4. 1969

Select to see quiz answer

The Head Start’s child development associate (CDA) program was launched in 1972 to train workers and help them achieve professional status in Head Start and child care programs. As the first director of the Office of Child Development (OCD) from 1970-1972, Dr. Edward Zigler led the efforts in conceptualizing the CDA credential program. It began as a nationwide experimental program for career preparation and credentials for staff. In 1973 the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF) funded 13 pilot projects to work on methodology and develop the CDA curriculum. The assessment procedure was field tested in the spring of 1974 and in the winter of 1975. The first CDAs were awarded in July of 1975 (Zigler & Muenchow, 1994, p. 162). The CDA was initially administered by a consortium of 39 national organizations, then by Bank Street College of Education, and finally, the Council for Professional Recognition began administering the CDA in 1985. As the CDA program expanded, it helped meet the urgent nationwide need for more trained early childhood workers.

Here’s what Jules Sugarman said about the Head Start CDA and Supplementary Training programs in his Head Start History, dated January 7, 1977:

Head Start’s CDA program was initiated in 1972 to train workers in Head Start and day care centers and to help them achieve professional status … About 4,000 men and women received CDA training in pilot programs funded by the Office of Child Development (OCD) and through Head Start Supplementary Training programs (Foreword p.15).

The child development Associate (CDA) program has created a new type of child care professional to increase the number and quality of child care staff. … Head Start staff members are receiving training toward a new CDA credential which is based on demonstrated competencies in working with children rather than on academic credits. … Through a Head Start Supplementary Training program, Head Start employees are able to study child development at universities in courses leading to academic degrees or to certification in early childhood education. Some 10,000 Head Start staff members enrolled in this Supplementary Training program to study child development at universities in courses leading to academic degrees or to certifications in early childhood education. About half of these men and women are receiving [CDA] training … (Foreword p.19).

Our early leaders knew that although "young children of the poor need help now … communities must take into account the fact that unqualified teachers may do more harm than good ... Such staff may smother children by doing too much or imposing control, mix up healthy behaviors for misbehavior, give too little encouragement, or miss significant teaching opportunities (p.8)". Without knowledgeable and qualified staff, "a child can start his regular schooling a weaker person, not stronger, because of his bad preschool experience" (Project Head Start, the staff for a child development center, p. 9)."

In April 2015, the report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation confirms this thinking. It notes that the adults who provide for the care and education of young children bear a great responsibility. The report also recommends that all lead educators working with children from birth through age 8 have a bachelor’s degree with specialized knowledge and competencies (p. S-5).

We often come into this work with the goal of helping children, but sometimes the importance of our work – and the Early Childhood Education (ECE) field – get overlooked. By increasing your early child development knowledge and enhancing your skills, you expand the ECE field and build your career. More importantly, you become a critical support in fostering children’s development and learning. Congratulations – your work is so important! You are crucial to providing high quality practices that links with long lasting, positive impacts on the very young children you serve!

Want to learn more? Access these resources:

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NCR). (2015) Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation

The Office of Economic Opportunity. (1967) Project Head Start: The Staff for a Child Development Center.

Zigler, Edward and Muenchow, Susan. (1992) Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment.

Memories of Training and Technical Assistance that ensures "no child gets to flunk Head Start" from the 40th Head Start Anniversary:

Edmund Clark: I started with Head Start in 1968. I joined what was called the C.D.T.A. division. That's Career Development and Technical Assistance Division. And we were, at that time, responsible for all the training and technical assistance activities for Head Start. I think our program working with the colleges and universities helped them to begin to develop child-development curricula and I think that's one of the things that Head Start helped to influence throughout the nation.

JoAn Knight Herren: In 1965, I was at the University of Iowa and that was at the very beginning of Head Start and there were only summer programs. So the University was asked to conduct in-service training for the teaching staff and so my colleagues and I put together a series of classes for the Head Start teachers. It started by saying that every classroom should have a certain number of children and that there should be an aide in the classroom. I remember that being amazing, you know. It made such an impact on the field. It was such a breath of fresh air and it's never stopped being a breath of fresh air.

Ernest Clark: Mary Lewis taught us that we weren't to tower over the children, that we should sit in the seats, or we should bend to the point that we were meeting the children, so they would have someone to speak to and relate as opposed to a great big adult.

Mary Lewis: If you individualize for every child in the Head Start program then no child gets to flunk Head Start. No way. And that is a real success, in my opinion, when people understand that the individualization not only covers children with very special needs but it covers every child and makes every child a winner and every parent happy.

Remember These?

Do you remember the Rainbow Series on Staff Development? These six yellow booklets contained ideas and suggestions to help agencies improve the planning and operation of their career development:

  • 1. Staff Development
  • 1a. Recruitment and Selection
  • 1b. Evaluating Performance and Progress
  • 1c. Career Planning and Progression
  • 1d. Training Courses and Methods
  • 1e. Development and Utilization of Individuals for Professional Positions

Do you remember Beautiful Junk? [PDF, 1.1MB]

This 12 page document was written by Dianne Warner & Jeanne Quill in 1967 for Project Head Start, Office of Child Development, US Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to help programs create support child development through play.

Learn why it was created from Betty Kelson who was one of the first employees of the Head Start Bureau back in 1965:

I was one of the very first employees of Head Start Bureau back in 1965 and at that time, toys for children in child development were just almost nonexistent. So what we would do, we had a person on the staff that developed a book called "Beautiful Junk" and it was what you could do with these little things that you have around the house - spools of thread, cartons from milk, cartons from eggs, and all the toys were really developed with very innovative ideas.

Sarah Merrill is a Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.

Head Start Professionalized the Early Childhood Education Workforce. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2015. English.

Last Reviewed: August 2015

Last Updated: September 3, 2015