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How to Fix Head Start

It works better than you've heard, but it still needs reform

Getty Images: John Moore

Congressman Paul Ryan declared in his recent report on poverty that Head Start is “failing to prepare children for school”—an assessment that the program’s critics share and would use to cut its funding. But such criticisms misstate what the evidence reveals. The critics focus on the most recent major evaluation, a randomized control trial in which Head Start participants made solid initial gains that faded by third grade. This was indeed a troubling result. But studies with older data, using less air-tight but widely accepted methods, found that Head Start graduates were better off even into their twenties.  Although the critics don’t acknowledge it, Head Start looks comparatively less strong today partly because high quality preschool programs now benefit many more children outside Head Start. 

But this much is true: Head Start could do better. While the program appears to make a real, lasting difference in some respects—by better preparing children for kindergarten, for example, and improving their long-term health—it has a weaker effect on elementary school learning (which also matters for long term results).  Evaluations suggest that strong state preschool programs sustain gains in reading, math, or both in ways that Head Start doesn’t.  There’s no reason to think Head Start can’t produce similar results. In fact, some individual Head Start programs already do: Kids in them achieve vocabulary gains more than twice the Head Start average. But it will require some changes.

Some of the program’s defenders may bristle at such talk, for fear that any questioning of Head Start’s effectiveness  will reinforce the arguments of Ryan and those eager to downsize or even eliminate the program. But now is the time to talk about improving Head Start. Replicating results from the best Head Start programs would be a big boost for our nation’s poorest youngsters, enabling many more of them to start school much better prepared.

The timing certainly seems right. For the first time in a long while, there’s a real push to invest more money in early childhood education. At the local and state levels, leaders ranging from New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio (a Democrat) to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (a Republican) have called for significant expansions of early childhood programs. At the national level, President Obama has proposed  helping states build their pre-kindergarten programs. These are great ideas because of the powerful evidence that quality preschool programs can change children’s lives.  And exactly because of that evidence, any conversation about early childhood education must include Head Start—which serves one million kids each year, four times as many as the largest state pre-k program.

The good news is that Head Start is already improving. Historically, programs applied for operating grants from the federal government and, once approved, continued to get them unless they committed a major violation of Head Start’s rules.  Thanks to a bipartisan change that Congress made in 2007 and that the Obama Administration has aggressively implemented, simply following the rules is no longer enough. Today, programs are judged based partly on observations of the quality of teaching in Head Start classrooms, which research has linked to later outcomes for kids.  Programs with poor scores during the observations, or with other problems, now need to compete for their grants. 

These changes are very important.  The problem is that they’re layered on top of Head Start’s cumbersome existing rules.   The program has 2,400 separate “performance standards,” on topics from dental care to potty emptying to accounting. Programs that fail to meet these standards can face sanctions. Each standard has its logic, but collectively all these rules limit innovation and customization.

To take one example, the rules call on grantees to do at least two home visits for every student. But in some cases, it may make more sense to vary the visits depending on need. A really troubled family might be better off with three or more visits, even if this means more stable families receive only one. Programs are required to give parents information on a vast array of topics, even though behavioral research suggests that information alone doesn’t do much good. And so on. The rules can be pretty nitpicky, too: In formal reports on programs’ performance, federal monitors have cited programs for failing to properly label federal property or track volunteer hours. 

For Head Start managers, these rules aren’t just annoying. They distract from what they can and should be doing to make sure children are prepared to succeed in school.  Head Start’s commitment to engaging parents and developing the whole child contributes immensely to school readiness.  But some requirements, like encouraging community advocacy, don’t clearly relate back to child development. Head Start’s learning framework includes 11 domains of learning, 37 subdomains, and more than 100 examples of what programs should do. Within that broad mandate, Head Start asks for progress in everything.  In the process, it can end up limiting excellence in anything.

Conservatives think the solution to these problems is to hand Head Start over to the states. But while some states--including some conservative ones–have been truly committed to early childhood education, the overall record of states is mixed. Ten states do not have statewide pre-school programs at all, and many made deep cuts in childcare spending during the recent recession.   Given the opportunity, some states would likely use federal money to replace funds they now spend on early childhood programs. That could mean fewer services overall.

So the feds shouldn’t abandon Head Start. They should improve it. The place to start is with those performance standards. Rather than being a point-by-point how-to-manual, they should create a basic standard for quality that allows individual programs to experiment and develop models that work in their communities. Intensive parental engagement should remain a Head Start cornerstone, for example, but requiring programs to conduct two home visits for all kids is overkill. Programs should submit to rigorous audits, but those that manage their money well should not need to classify every expense as administrative or programmatic. Loosening up the controls would not only free existing managers to focus more on preparing children for success. It would also attract innovators who, because of federal rules, stay away from Head Start now.

Equally important is setting expectations about outcomes. Head Start needs to make sure that in every program, managers know the critical goals they’re striving for. Parents also deserve to know what Head Start centers are trying to accomplish for their children and how they are doing. That doesn’t mean a national test focused on academics, as the Bush Administration proposed.  While early academic skills are crucial for school readiness, young children also need to develop their social and emotional skills, like self-control and cooperation, in order to be ready for school. 

The difficulty here is that the evidence in this field is still evolving. A growing research base supports deeper curriculum in language and math, and there is some evidence that this can also help with social and emotional skills.  But it’s too soon to say we know the one true path.  To focus more on outcomes, while honoring reasonable differences in philosophies, Head Start could settle on a few different ways of measuring performance.  All would include the big things that matter--verbal, math, and social and emotional skills, along with some broader measures of health and well-being.  But the precise measures would differ.  This approach would give managers a much better sense of what they need to do for kids.  It would also give researchers a great chance to learn about what matters most.  Instead of the tiresome debate over “whether Head Start works,” we’d get more insight into when and how Head Start works best. 

These proposals would require change, but they are not a radical break from the path that Head Start is already on.  Some may feel that talking about Head Start is a distraction from increasing funding.  In America, though, reform and resources usually go together. Strengthening—not attacking—Head Start should be a priority.