On Wednesday, Bellwether and Results for America are going to publish a new paper I’ve written on how to renew Head Start’s promise for disadvantaged preschoolers. Head Start doesn’t get a lot of press or public attention, and it’s also largely overlooked by education reformers. This is a huge mistake. Here’s why:
1. It’s a big program that serves a lot of kids. Head Start serves more than 903,000 students–roughly 40 percent as many children as all children served in charter schools nationally.
2. It focuses on the most disadvantaged children. By law, Head Start focuses on children living below the poverty line (programs may serve some children with family incomes up to 130% of poverty). In enrolling children, Head Start programs must prioritize those with the greatest need factors. Thus, Head Start focuses on the very population of poor children about whom education reformers care most.
3. It’s a dysfunctional, entrenched system in need of reform. Education reformers have focused on tackling the dysfunction and entrenched interests of large urban school systems. Head Start faces many of the same challenges–extensive and burdensome regulatory requirements; a focus on compliance over performance; entrenched providers of mediocre quality (but also some really exemplary Head Start providers doing awesome things for kids!)–that education reformers have tackled in the K-12 space. Moreover, because Head Start already spends some $8 billion a year in federal education funds, this is one place in early childhood education where there’s potential to drive improved outcomes by improving the effectiveness with which existing funds are used.
4. It’s one place in education where federal policy changes can make a huge difference. Because Head Start is a direct federal to local program, governed by federal policies, its one of the areas in education where federal policy changes can make a big difference. In K-12 education, federal policies must trickle down by placing requirements on states, that in turn place requirements on districts, that in turn eventually impact schools and classrooms. Recent federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have simultaneously pushed the boundaries of federal authority in education and illustrated its severe limitations as a driver of real change at the school level. In Head Start, by contrast, the 2007 federal reauthorization led to significant changes–such as mandating use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System as a measure of teaching quality–that were felt across all Head Start programs nationally. Federal executive branch officials have the regulatory authority to rewrite the Head Start Performance Standards without requiring Congressional action.
5. Effective early learning can change the trajectory of kids’ lives. This is the biggest reason that education reformers should care about Head Start. Research shows that achievement gaps begin well before children enter the schoolhouse door. It also shows that high-quality pre-k programs can significantly narrow those gaps, enabling disadvantaged children to start school on an even footing with their peers. On average, Head Start programs aren’t producing those kinds of results right now, but the examples of high-performing providers, both in Head Start and other publicly funded early childhood programs, suggest it’s possible.
By ignoring Head Start, education reformers are missing a huge opportunity to change the trajectory of millions of children’s lives and to fundamentally change the game for K-12 schools seeking to put disadvantaged kids on track for success in college and careers.