E.g., 11/28/2023
E.g., 11/28/2023
Dual Language Learners in Head Start: The Promises and Pitfalls of New Reforms

Dual Language Learners in Head Start: The Promises and Pitfalls of New Reforms

HeadStart PascoCountySchools

A group of Head Start students and their parents at a school in Pasco County, Florida. (Photo: Pasco County Schools)

Since its inception a half century ago, Head Start has become a model for early childhood education programs nationwide and has made serving the needs of immigrant populations and linguistic minorities a central focus. Indeed, cultural and linguistic responsiveness has always been a key ingredient in the program’s effort to provide preschool learning to diverse communities.

Beginning as a summer pilot program as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start was designed specifically to help children ages 5 and under from low-income families surmount deep social and educational disparities. From an initial enrollment of 561,000, Head Start has grown steadily over the years, and by 2015 enrolled nearly 1 million children. To date, more than 33 million children have gone through the Head Start program.

Initially conceived as an eight-week program, Head Start has expanded to encompass year-round programs and has also extended services to pregnant women and toddlers (Early Head Start), American Indian and Native Alaskan populations, migrant children (Migrant and Seasonal Head Start), homeless children, and children with disabilities.

This article discusses Head Start’s importance as an early childhood education model for the children of immigrants, particularly Dual Language Learners (DLLs). It examines how recently proposed regulatory changes may affect this population and considers how the challenges Head Start faces echo those confronting early childhood and educational policy for DLLs more generally. These hurdles include inadequate assessment tools and professional development, the discontinuity between early childhood and K-12 education, and the longstanding challenges associated with supporting the involvement of low-literate and linguistic-minority parents in the education of their children.

Increasing Enrollment of Dual Language Learners

Key Statistics on Dual Language Learners in Head Start

  • More than one-quarter of all children served in Head Start or Early Head Start come from homes in which a language other than English (LOTE) is spoken.
  • In these households, Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken language (more than fourth-fifths of LOTE homes).
  • Ninety-two percent of DLLs entering Head Start were born in the United States, while 86 percent of mothers and 90 percent of fathers of children entering the program are foreign born.
  • Sixty-one percent of DLLs enrolled in Head Start live at or below the federal poverty threshold (FPT) and 81 percent at or below 130 percent of FPT.
  • Most families with DLL students face financial hardships: more DLL families faced food insecurity (51 percent vs. 26 percent) than monolingual English families.
  • About 26 percent of DLLs also received child care in settings outside Head Start such as family- or home-based care.

Note: FPT is calculated based on total family income before taxes (excluding capital gains and noncash benefits such as food stamps). In 2014, the FPT for a family of four was $24,230. For more information, see U.S. Census Bureau, “How the Bureau Measures Poverty,” accessed July 18, 2016, available online.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration of Children and Families, Services Snapshot – National All Programs (2013-2014) (Washington, DC: HHS, 2014), available online.

Head Start’s vision is rooted in the idea that high-quality early childhood experiences require broad consideration of the social, emotional, health, and cognitive needs of young children. It was conceived as a comprehensive program, and many of its social, health, and family engagement innovations remain essential components of early childhood programs. These diverse services are delivered locally by 1,700 public, private, and nonprofit agencies, which receive grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The specifics of individual program models vary depending on local needs, although services must be provided for at least six hours per day for Early Head Start and either half day (four hours) or full day for Head Start.

Located primarily in centers, schools, or home-based child-care operations, Head Start programs encourage family participation, including classroom volunteering and active involvement in decision-making and governance. The programs are also required to be responsive to the cultural and linguistic needs of the families and communities they serve. The Office of Head Start offers resources to program providers to help develop culturally and linguistically responsive services, including resources specific to DLLs and immigrant and refugee families.

Despite some evidence that early gains in Head Start fade after elementary school, most evaluations have shown Head Start improves both the short- and long-term social and educational outcomes of the children it serves. For example, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that Head Start enrollment leads to significant gains in receptive vocabulary and early literacy and numeracy, with some of the greatest gains evident with Spanish-speaking children and those with limited English proficiency. Furthermore, a 2016 Brookings Institution study found that the Head Start program has significant long-term benefits for enrollees, including greater likelihood of graduating from high school and college (particularly among Hispanic students) and stronger social, emotional, and behavioral development into adulthood.

Among Head Start enrollees, one notable and growing group is Dual Language Learners—young children who are learning English and the native language of their parents at the same time. The term DLL is often used interchangeably with the more commonly known English Language Learner (ELL), and its growing use reflects recent research emphasizing the essential role of native language acquisition for the development of English language proficiency. The population of DLLs (and ELLs more generally) is rapidly growing among preK-12 enrollees, far outpacing the overall population growth of school-age children (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Change in U.S. Total and ELL PreK-12 Enrollment between School Year 1998-99 and 2009-10 (%)

Source: Data from National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language (NCELA), The Growing Numbers of English Learner Students, 2009/10 (Washington, DC: NCELA, 2011), available online

Head Start enrollment of DLLs has likewise increased. In 2015, DLLs comprised about one-third of children enrolled in Head Start programs, with more than 320,000 of the nearly 1 million enrolled children speaking a language other than English at home. More than 86 percent of Head Start grantees serve children who are DLLs, meaning the majority of providers grapple with the challenges of addressing the unique needs of these children. In addition to its general programming, Head Start serves several key DLL groups through American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs, as well as programs in Puerto Rico and U.S. territories.

New Program Standards and Potential Implications for DLLs

From the inception of Head Start, school readiness has always been central to its mission. The form its programs take and the ways in which their impacts are measured, however, continue to evolve. Head Start has not been immune to the increasing demand for greater accountability and measurable standards seen in the K-12 education space, most notably with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and subsequent policy initiatives to improve teacher quality, turn around underperforming schools, and create a more competitive federal grants system. Indeed, the push to expand early childhood programs and improve the quality of existing ones stems from the same anxieties about global economic competiveness and longstanding achievement gaps that have shaped recent K-12 policies.

An additional factor at play here is the growing body of evidence showing the significant influence early childhood programs have on lifelong academic and economic success. As a result, Head Start’s goals have become increasingly aligned with broader educational efforts to ensure college and career readiness. As proponents of early education seek to expand policymaker support for preK programs, the pressures to align K-12 grade standards to postsecondary preparation (such as the Common Core State Standards) have also seeped into efforts to improve preK programs. Although initiatives to ensure quality have long played a part in Head Start—including efforts dating back to the early 1970s to improve professional standards for early childhood workers—recent measures to raise standards and ensure accountability have dramatically altered the policy landscape.

Policy changes that improve the quality of early childhood and Head Start programs have the potential to positively impact DLL children. New regulations from the Office of Head Start, the Program Performance Standards, promise both improvements and opportunities to more effectively meet the needs of the growing DLL population. These regulations explicitly recognize bilingualism as a strength, require culturally and linguistically appropriate screening and assessment tools, and urge programs to engage with families and communities—all moves in line with Head Start’s traditional leadership in early childhood education and in step with the program’s shifting demographics.

But this new effort to improve program quality could fall short of its promise for DLL students and their families. For example, while the new regulations call for culturally and linguistically appropriate learning environments and an improved professional development model for staff, they stop short of requiring grant-receiving institutions to provide staff members with targeted training on home languages and culturally appropriate caregiving practices. Likewise, while the regulations encourage grantees to follow state and local Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS)—tools developed to monitor and evaluate the quality of child care and early education programs—few if any of these systems take into consideration the unique needs of DLLs. If program providers are to accurately assess the development of DLL children, they will need tools that allow flexibility and encourage the use of multiple measures of developmental progress.

Overall, the implementation of the regulations in November 2016 promises to be an improvement in providing greater access and quality to enrolled children, including DLLs. By expanding requirements for minimum learning time and individualized professional development for program staff, along with strengthening family partnerships and streamlining core health services, these new regulations could potentially benefit this growing population. But unless these changes are adapted to specifically target the challenges that DLLs and their families face, the regulations alone will not adequately serve this group.

Future Policy Challenges

The growing body of research reinforcing the connection between high-quality early childhood education and future success has fueled both regulations and the expansion of early childhood programs. However, such policy changes suffer from a dearth of research on DLL-specific best practices. While quality early childhood programs undoubtedly benefit both English-monolingual and DLL populations, the latter group requires specific additional supports to make comparable improvements. The effectiveness and long-term effects of different types of support remain largely unexplored.

Particularly lacking is research on best practices for multilingual classrooms (i.e., classrooms where there is no majority second language and staff lack the linguistic competencies to teach and assess in multiple languages). Indeed, while bilingual program models have shown promise in improving the school readiness of DLLs, little is known about how effective different instructional methods are in classrooms where a wider variety of languages are spoken. There are some generally agreed-upon elements of instructional design for multilingual classrooms—such as the use of students’ home language in classroom materials—but few tools exist to assess student learning in most languages other than English. Additional research could enable service providers to create evidence-based instructional designs and help teachers and staff effectively meet the needs of DLLs in linguistically complex settings.

The challenge of designing and developing language assessments, as well as building the capacity of teachers to assess DLLs, often comes down to inadequate resources. In a given classroom or program, there are often not enough students who speak any one language (aside from Spanish) to justify the investment in developing new assessment tools and curricula. Moreover, because most teachers and staff in early childhood education classrooms are monolingual English speakers, few have the linguistic skills needed to create their own assessments and culturally relevant materials.

Together, the lack of longitudinal research and dearth of multilingual assessments complicate efforts to ensure that early childhood education programs are adequately preparing students to enter the school system. Although the current popularity of expanding early childhood programs and aligning them with K-12 standards has gained some traction in education policy circles, significant barriers remain before the benefits will be felt by all. The early childhood field has far fewer standardization and regulatory requirements than K-12 public schooling, and on the whole lacks the kind of funding and public resources devoted to elementary and secondary education. Critics of common standards will argue this lack of standardization best preserves local autonomy and the kind of comprehensive social, emotional, and health services young children need, guarding them from the testing frenzy of the current K-12 regime. But without at least a preliminary set of tools to gauge the progress DLLs make in both languages, there is no way to know what is and is not working for these children.

Despite the recent surge of interest in expanding and improving quality early childhood programs, gaps in resources and research remain. This is especially true when it comes to understanding the needs of children from immigrant and low-literate families and the types of support that will best meet them. As DLLs are the fastest growing segment in preK programs, commensurate attention to their unique needs is imperative if educational services are to serve all children equitably. Head Start has been a model for serving this population for decades, and it is likely to remain one as the demand for quality programs continues to grow. Continuing its commitment to comprehensive services and adapting to the demographic changes and advances in pedagogical research will be essential to ensuring that children and families in diverse communities have the appropriate support they need.


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