Education Opinion

Why Passing the Buck on Head Start Is a Bad Idea

By Sara Mead — January 18, 2013 6 min read
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In my previous post, I explained why disagree with Russ Whitehurst’s characterization of preschool as “oversold.” Here, I’ll explain why I think he’s wrong about how to make Head Start better.

Russ wants to devolve Head Start to the states and turn it into a voucher program. Here’s the problem with that: It’s basically a “kick the can” approach. It says “Fine, the feds don’t have a clue how to make Head Start effective! So let’s pass the problem to someone else: Let’s pass it to states. Not only that, let’s tell them to pass the problem along to parents.” And let’s pretend we fixed the problem by passing it along to someone else. That’s not being hard-headed. It’s abdicating responsibility.

Now, I’ll admit that there is a reasonable case for restructuring Head Start to give more authority to states--who, after all, are the ones overseeing child care, state pre-k, and K-12 education programs and thus better situated than the feds to coordinate Head Start with these programs. Similarly, there are also good reasons to give low-income parents greater access to a range of early childhood options.

But Russ doesn’t actually lay out the theory of action behind his proposals here, which also means he doesn’t engage some substantial potential arguments against these courses of action (such as concerns that states--some of which have significantly cut early childhood spending--might use Head Start funds to supplant existing state pre-k or child care funds, thus actually undermining quality and access to early learning for low-income kids).

A much better approach, it seems to me, would be to take what we know from an abundant research literature about what works in early childhood education and actually try to do better. We know what examples of high-quality early childhood programs look like. What we need is a concerted theory of action to grow the number of programs that look like that, while decreasing the number that don’t. That, in turn, implies that we need a series of things:

  • A clear definition of quality mirrors what research tells us low-income kids need to experience in preschool to be prepared for success in school
  • A valid and reliable way to determine whether or not a given Head Start provider meets that definition of quality and is actually improving children’s readiness for school
  • A process for de-funding Head Start (and other early childhood) providers who do not deliver a quality experience or results
  • A strategy for growing the supply of effective providers who are delivering high-quality results, whether by creating new providers, growing existing quality providers, or improving those that are currently mediocre
  • Elimination of current provisions in Head Start’s law, regulation, or requirements that create obstacles to or distract Head Start providers from a laser-like focus on delivering a high-quality early learning experience that narrows early learning gaps for low-income kids

The 2007 Head Start Reauthorization and the Obama administration’s actions on Head Start to date, which Russ dismisses as a “half measure”, actually take some of the most meaningful steps in the program’s history to address the second and third components outlined above. But Russ is right that they’re limited measures relative to what we actually need. We don’t know whether the recompetition will come to much in the end. And none of the reforms to date have done anything to address the issues of building supply or eliminating bureaucratic requirements that get in the way of effective programs.

Now, it’s possible that there are too many Head Start programs, and the federal government is just too far removed, to do a good job of the kind of evaluation and oversight needed to carry out the strategy outlined above--which would require the feds or an intermediary to take on an authorizer-like role. And it’s possible--though by no means certain--that at least some states would be much more effective in playing that authorizing role. But that’s also not at all what Russ is calling for here. He wants to allow low-income parents to take their Head Start vouchers to any “state licensed early childhood education center.” But early childhood licensure doesn’t address educational quality. Licensure is about ensuring that childcare providers meet minimum basic standards for health and safety--and those standards are often shockingly minimal: Many states do not even require “teachers” in these programs to have a high school diploma or GED, leave aside things like curriculum of effective instructional techniques.

In looking at early childhood issues over the past several years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the two biggest problems in early childhood are 1) lack of access, particularly for poor and “near-poor” kids, and 2) an insufficient supply of quality providers. It’s not that we don’t have great early childhood providers delivering amazing results for kids. There’s just nowhere near as many of them as kids who need them. And the single biggest obstacle to addressing both access and supply is the lack of a reliable, adequate, per-pupil funding stream for quality providers. In the K-12 sector, per-pupil charter school funding has facilitated the growth of game-changing quality providers, such as KIPP or Uncommon Schools, that are fundamentally changing our understanding of what’s possible for low-income children. Where that funding is also available for pre-k--as in Washington, D.C.--we’re also seeing the emergence of providers, like AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School--that are doing the same thing with pre-k. But there are very few jurisdictions in this country that provide an adequate and reliable per-pupil funding stream for quality pre-k (Abbott in New Jersey is another--and there’s evidence that Abbott participants reap benefits that last into elementary school).

Head Start, although we think of it as a program or the collection of providers that deliver it, is, at heart (like nearly all federal education programs) a funding stream. As a funding stream, it has the potential, with appropriate legislative or regulatory changes, to become something that could serve as the funding stream to grow quality supply. The danger is that proposals to “improve” Head Start by dismantling it could also dismantle one of the few candidates on the scene to become a solid funding stream for quality providers.

An underlying issue here, of course, is whether and how Head Start’s mission and concept of quality align with what research tells us low-income kids need to succeed in school and what our nation needs the program to do in this day and age. I don’t agree with folks who think Head Start should completely abandon its comprehensive services mission and focus solely on academics--and I don’t think the research supports that, either. That said, if Head Start isn’t delivering the results we want, we should question whether its stated purpose and definition of quality aren’t aligned with what we need it to accomplish now. Those features, though, are defined in the authorizing legislation, and they can be changed by legislative action. Shifting Head Start’s oversight--whether to the Department of Education, the States, or a green platypus from Mars--alone won’t address its purpose of definition of quality.

Being hard-headed can be a virtue. But (as my mother will tell you) hard-headedness can also be a fault, particularly when it leads to failure to consider alternatives or commitment to a course of action that does damage. We can and should be hard-headed about poor performance in early childhood programs, but we should be equally hard-headed in how we judge proposals to make them better. And we should never be hard-hearted about the impacts they could have on vulnerable kids.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.