Head Start: Keeping It Real

02/22/2017 10:29 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2017

While the Head Start community welcomes efforts to highlight the critical need for high-quality, early learning programs, including the need for more resources, longer duration, and increased access to quality early learning opportunities, too often these assertions are fraught with misleading information that confuses the debate and waters down the argument.

Take, for example, Katharine R. Stevens’ chapter in Robert Doar’s recently-released book, A Safety Net that Works: Improving Federal Programs for Low-Income Americans.” While we agree with Dr. Stevens’ argument on the importance of high-quality early education existing needs in the field, Dr. Stevens fails to effectively highlight current challenges or adequately address them. In fact, the pilot program suggested in the chapter would likely hinder, rather than support, continuing improvement in the early childhood field, and would leave our nation’s most vulnerable children and their families behind.

The Head Start community’s concerns with this chapter range from the questionably-presented historical context to omission of relevant policy actions and research to a proposed solution that does not address the challenges identified. Specific concerns include:

Mischaracterizing the History of Federal Social, Economic, and Early Learning Policies

Several points throughout the chapter present an inaccurate portrayal of the history of welfare and social and economic policies in the United States. This flawed summary and selective presentation of current policies, practices, and research greatly diminishes the credibility of the chapter. With regard to Head Start in particular, there are several mischaracterizations of Head Start’s past, present, and future. Head Start is the original two-generation model, focusing on providing comprehensive services to support both children and families mentally, physically, and emotionally. With everything from nutrition services, screenings, medical care, and job training for parents, Head Start is anything but an “emphasis on schooling” alone, as Dr. Stevens suggests, and has never had such a narrow focus in its more than 50-year history.

Learning from Current Approaches and Making Evidence-Based Improvements

The argument that Head Start’s “implementation quality is uneven across the country” and that the program is “burdened by half a century of accumulated federal rules and regulations” is simply incorrect. Facts prove that Head Start provides consistently high-quality programming and continues to improve over time. This misconception of uneven quality comes from a report with a narrow and incorrect characterization of the data . Further, the new Head Start Program Performance Standards, effective as of November 2016, are a comprehensive revision of Head Start rules and regulations. The new Standards substantially reduce administrative burden, encourage collaboration, align with other federal requirements, and build upon the earlier standards’ success to ensure quality practices and increased duration of services. Failing to acknowledge these new Standards does not negate their existence. Similarly, the chapter also fails to acknowledge many other ongoing efforts . States, local governments, and programs have made significant progress in the area of coordination and federal policymakers are participating in the solution through the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships and the Early Learning Challenge grants under Race to the Top. Before embarking on a new restructuring of federal laws and funding, it’s imperative that we learn from these initiatives to thoughtfully inform any future action. In fact, recent federal reauthorizations, including the 2007 Head Start Act, the 2014 Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as well as the revised Standards, have focused on coordination of early learning programs. Combined, these current strategies represent a strong future for program improvements and local and state systems collaboration. Finally, the contention that early childhood policy is “shaped by outdated science,” ignores the multitude of studies that show positive outcomes from high-quality comprehensive early learning programs. Research on early childhood is constantly enhanced and refined; changes to the Standards were guided by such research, much of which is based on data from programs in place much more recently than the 1972-1985 Abecedarian study cited in the chapter.

Limited Effectiveness of State-Level Control and Vouchers

The recommendation that the federal government give states more control over early childhood funding negates the author’s repeated argument that the states generally do a poor job running the K-12 school system. Further, the evidence from studies of school choice is far from conclusive, which makes the argument to align federal early childhood funding streams through a voucherized-school-choice program shaky at best. This proposal also ignores the fact that the desired alignment is already happening through local- and program-level coordination of funding streams throughout the country. The merging of funds at the federal level is, therefore, unnecessary and redundant.

Serving our Neediest Children and Families

The proposed pilot program threatens the status of our nation’s neediest children and families. Without an influx of additional resources, there is very little capacity to increase affordable access without decreasing quality or duration. The fact that Head Start does not yet reach all eligible children, nor do all programs meet the schedules of working parents, is largely due to a significant limitation of federal resources for Head Start and CCDBG, not a fundamental flaw in the program design, differing regulations, or anything else. In an effort to more closely match full-day care, in fact, the federal government recently put a down payment on a duration investment in Head Start and the new Standards codify the requirement for extended duration over the next five years - a fact expediently excluded from the chapter.

While the Head Start community absolutely agrees with efforts to expand access, increase quality and extend duration, achieving these goals cannot occur in a silo of narrowly reported information. Instead of advocating for a new federal system, a careful review of existing innovative coordination activities in communities across the country is merited to ensure systemic improvements are made in the effective delivery of quality early learning to young children. Every vulnerable child deserves at least that.

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