09/16/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Lessons for Early Learning

When I was growing up, my father designed most of the trains that ran throughout the Balkans and the sound of rumbling trains became a true childhood comfort. To this day, when I stay in hotels in towns where I can hear train whistles at night, I get a special, slightly homesick feeling.

Recently in Lafayette, LA, at the Head Start training conference, just hearing the soft, familiar train sound brought to mind the parallel of our nation's rail system with Head Start, our nation's first early education system. Each started as a bold new idea, each required commitment, sacrifice and hard work to build, and each still reaches many out-of-the-way communities where interstates and airlines never reach.

As with any transformative creation, both our railroad system and Head Start have faced challenges and opportunities and responded with innovation. The railroads have seen the addition of new modes of transportation -- automobiles and trucks led to the development of the nation's highway system, and airports were built to accommodate air traffic.

Now, all those forms of transport coexist, moving whatever they are best suited to convey to wherever they are best suited to deliver -- whether it is freight, sightseers through the Cascades, business passengers on the Acela, or transcontinental air travelers.

Tremendous innovation has occurred during the 49 years since Head Start burst on the scene, designed to open wide the opportunity for low-income and at-risk children, the opportunity to change their life trajectory and to let them reach for the American Dream. Head Start's unique design was based on research that asserted in order to be able and ready to learn, children must be healthy and nourished, able to see, hear, chew their food, and respect each other.

The designers of Head Start also advanced a then radical idea - now confirmed by University of Chicago research - that high parent involvement was an important element of future success.

The most significant Head Start innovation -- Early Head Start, introduced into public awareness the research demonstrating the profound influence of prenatal and earliest experiences on healthy brain development.

Other large-scale Head Start innovations have included Child Development Associate (CDA) - the original competency-based early childhood credential, Sesame Street, and Early Head Start. And then there are the lessons from the Head Start system that have since (and to various degrees of success) been used by states and their consultants to design state early learning systems- such as the need for programs to have dedicated funding streams, standards, monitoring, professional development and parent engagement. How many of us realize that states' quality rating systems (QRIS) were originally conceived to empower parents with knowledge about the quality of their programs? For Head Start parents, that knowledge is still available first-hand - in fact, they share in the responsibility for governing the programs their children attend.

Finally, one of Head Start's best kept secrets is the amount of innovative practices that exist locally. Adapting the implementation of Head Start's rigorous standards to the realities of so many diverse communities - and of so many families distinguished from each other by a variety of strengths and risks - the degree of originality with which local programs approach their mission is extraordinary. Also interesting is their humility when it comes to their innovative strengths -- they are so focused on delivering the best service and addressing typical systemic challenges such as workforce, facilities and local match, that they assume everyone else is using the same practices in their staffing, parent involvement and community engagement.

Recently, a respected state leader talking to a leadership group suggested that some innovations in early childhood education might be funded by abandoning "the outdated programs, like Head Start." Yet, I am unaware of anyone who thinks we should dig up the rails just because there also exist other ways of getting cargo and passengers around. In fact, some are building light rail and others are dreaming of more high speed trains to connect large urban areas.

Our modern day transportation system reflects modes that are designed for specific needs and populations. Head Start reflects a proven, comprehensive approach to providing quality early learning programs to our nation's poorest and most at-risk children. While early learning opportunities should be made available to as many children as possible, it is critical to remember the diverse and vulnerable population Head Start serves. Thankfully, there are any number of modes of transportation we can choose from to get us from here to there. Head Start is the mode of early learning that has effectively placed more than 31 million of our nation's poorest children on a pathway to success.

We certainly should continue discussing innovation and quality in early education. But we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach to anything is shortsighted, and that unique circumstances demand unique approaches. After all, it does no good to get on a train if it doesn't stop at your station.