Washington is sometimes referred to as the “Beltway bubble,” a phenomenon in which think tanks, lobbyists, and legislators talk only to each other before making policy decisions that have the potential to affect millions of children and families nationwide. Unfortunately, this policymaking-in-a-bubble method often fails to reflect practical, real-world knowledge. Policymakers’ frequent lack of understanding about how things work on the ground jeopardizes the health and well-being of the very people the government intends to serve.
To break into that bubble, Head Start, the federally funded early-learning program designed to prepare our nation’s most at-risk children for success in kindergarten and beyond, is taking a different approach to ensure that its practitioners are at the forefront of early-childhood policy recommendations. The policy and research team of the National Head Start Association (of which I am the executive director) partnered with three other organizations—the Volcker Alliance, Results for America, and Bellwether Education Partners—to host a series of nationwide discussions last summer, both by phone and in person, about the future of Head Start’s outcome measurements. Local program leaders from Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah joined activists, lobbyists, and policymakers from organizations in Washington to work in collaboration. The recommendations made during those discussions, in addition to the contributions from Head Start leaders from across the country, formed the basis for a new report released in January, called “Moneyball for Head Start: Using Data, Evidence, and Evaluation to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families.”
This report reflects a collaboration that Head Start leaders hope might inject some new oxygen into the Beltway bubble by illustrating the possibilities for improvement that can result from collaboration between practitioners and those at the policy level. While Head Start performance standards currently include some data to inform program management, the new report proposes placing data at the center of understanding effective practices and testing innovative ideas, both at the individual-program level and at the national early-education-stakeholder level. The report further contends that a similar framework of improvement could also strengthen federal education policies. It is still too soon for us to have any regulatory or legislative impact at the federal level; however, these suggestions are already shaping the vision that local Head Start leaders have for improving outcomes on children’s early learning. Leaders are working with staff members to use attendance, social and emotional development, and learning data to make decisions that support the progress of individual children.
The report also identifies the infrastructure and technical assistance Head Start programs need to be effective and calls on the federal office of Head Start in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make these resources a priority. But research is needed, and the report recommends federal funding to develop better outcome-measurement tools and conduct research on indicators of quality in the programs.
Good policy cannot be created in the absence of firsthand knowledge."
To make these suggestions effective, our report tried to answer the following question: How can policymakers and practitioners work together to maximize outcomes for children and their families? The first proposed intervention is simple: Ensure that practitioners (and not just one or two) are part of every policy conversation.
The engagement of innovative practitioners in policy is important for two reasons. First, good policy cannot be created in the absence of firsthand knowledge. As advocates and practitioners work together to incorporate the recommendations into federal laws, regulations, training, and technical assistance, it helps to know that these ideas are grounded in reality and stand a stronger chance of robust outcomes. Second, programs such as Head Start can feel a sense of ownership in the values and proposals that they champion. Rather than following a set of seemingly semi-informed recommendations proposed by what amounts to strangers, early-learning practitioners are able to recognize the insights of some of the brightest minds in their field.
The approach taken to create such a strategy—whereby policymakers and practitioners work in tandem—has exciting implications for the evolution of policy in general across a wide range of federal programs. How many food banks could come to the table to inform new food-subsidy policies? How many homeless shelters could take part in conversations about supporting adults with mental-health or substance-abuse issues?
If policy discussions in Washington are truly intended to further the needs of people and programs across the country, policymakers must invite practitioners to bring their insights and wisdom into the process. They must include the people implementing federal programs on the ground. Our legislators must focus on improving our educational system together—with all the voices at the table—to create a better model for a process of policy development. This is absolutely critical to magnifying impact and maximizing outcomes for the many children these programs serve.