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Where is Head Start Heading? Three Potential Tracks

This is the final post in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org in partnership with Politico.com. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling.  

We started this series with a train metaphor, describing early education programs as trains moving down various tracks to deliver children to elementary school ready and eager to learn. More than a decade ago, when a few states started developing new paths for publicly funded preschool, the tracks already laid by Head Start seemed outdated and distant from what states were constructing. The unspoken, yet as it turns out, overstated, assumption was that state pre-K was aiming for literacy and kindergarten readiness, while Head Start was pointed toward children's health and social well-being.

But changes in Head Start standards and a tilt toward literacy instruction have brought the program closer to what many states have envisioned for their public pre-K programs. Studies have shown that the program has had a modest positive impact on several, though not all, indicators of children's readiness for school. While state-funded pre-K programs have more teachers with bachelor's degrees, independent ratings of the quality of preschool classrooms put Head Start ahead of state-based programs.

Sept. 8: Competing, Collaborating and Evolving
Sept. 9: Seeking Signs of Change Since 2007
Sept. 11: Checking Assumptions on School Readiness
Sept. 15: A Tilt Toward Literacy
Sept 17: The Case for 'Comprehensive Services'
Sept. 18: The Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start
Today: Future Tracks
Tomorrow: Web chat here (email us your questions)

Meanwhile, early childhood specialists have renewed their call for a broader definition of kindergarten readiness, beyond preparing children to identify and sound out letters. A growing number of pre-K programs are expanding their mission to include children's social development, parent involvement and health -- echoing an approach that Head Start has taken since its genesis.

Ideally this might mean more choices for low-income parents and more cohesion in today's fledgling systems of early education.  But it also raises the prospect of confusion and collision. Except in a few select places -- such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, which we described in our previous post -- Head Start and state pre-K programs run according to entirely different sets of standards for everything from teacher credentialing to how many hours their doors are open. Head Start is designed to be available only to very poor families, while the pre-K programs in the states vary widely in how they determine which families can participate. And Head Start and state-funded pre-K aren't the only trains at the junction. Child care programs that rely on state and federal subsidies are chugging along too, many of which have standards in only the barest sense of the word.

How these programs connect to the public schools is critical too. A coherent, high-quality system would never allow trains to simply deposit children on the platform, assuming that elementary school educators will know where to pick up each individual child and where to take them next.  Ultimately, the future of early education in this country will depend on how well state and federal policymakers build the infrastructure to connect all these different routes into an integrated system that transports children seamlessly from preschool (or even the infant and toddler years) through early elementary school.

Imagine, for example, a day when parents can make smart decisions about childcare and preschool with a full array of information at their fingertips, as if they were perusing a transit map with multiple and intersecting options for enrolling their children in affordable preschool and flexible wraparound care. To make this happen, the broader early education system - all the way up to 3rd grade -- will need to become better connected to Head Start, and vice versa.

Both the Early Learning Challenge Fund, passed by the House of Representatives last week, and the 2007 changes to the Head Start law call for better collaboration between all the different stakeholders in early childhood circles, not to mention the public schools. But many questions remain on how to knit everything together.  Based on what this blog series has considered so far, we see at least three paths that Head Start could take over the coming years -- each of which have both positive points and pitfalls.

More possibilities are out there too, and we're eager to get perspectives from our trusty Early Ed Watch readers. Consider this a brainstorming exercise, help us list out more pros and cons in the comment field below, and join us tomorrow for a web chat on this series.

Brainstorming: 3 Tracks Head Start Could Take


1. Divvy Up the Day, Serving Children Under Different Programs at Different Times

In this scenario, Head Start classrooms could become state pre-K classrooms in the morning and revert to Head Start classrooms in the afternoon. Or vice versa. The point is that part of the day is paid for with state funds and part of it is paid for with federal Head Start dollars.


Head Start programs in some states, like Georgia, are already doing this.

Students from a broader spectrum of economic circumstances -- Head Start and non-Head Start children -- arrive in kindergarten with a similar set of skills because at least part of their day has been taught by pre-K teachers according to the state's curriculum standards.


Funding instability in one program could lead to a mismatch in quality and expectations between portions of the day. What happens when a state cuts early education programs to survive a severe budget crunch?  (Funding imbalances are, of course, a problem inherent in any system that relies on both state and federal money.)

Eligibility criteria may differ between time periods in the day. Many working families, for example, aren't "poor enough" to qualify for Head Start. Parents who work full-time would have to find alternatives for afternoon childcare - and figure out how their children would be transported to different facilities or classrooms.

2. Put Everyone in One Train Car by Blending Funds at the Classroom Level

Children of different economic circumstances would be taught in one room instead of being separated, based on their parents' income levels, into different classrooms, buildings and facilities, as they are today. At the level of classroom instruction, no one would be able to tell which children have their tuition covered by Head Start dollars.


Children would no longer be segregated by economic status; the stigma of poverty associated with Head Start could subside.

Because children would be all mixed together, as they are in the K-12 public schools, there are more chances to promote continuity from pre-K up through the early elementary grades. This is already happening in pockets around the country, including in parts of South Dakota and Chicago.


Without a common set of standards for both programs, whose standards for classroom quality take precedence? Who would be "in charge' on issues like teacher credentialing and children-to-teacher ratios -- the state or the federal government? Would standards be based on the lowest common denominator?

3. Let Head Start Get Younger, While Schools and States Take Care of 4-Year-Olds

The federal government, via Head Start, would pay for early learning programs for parents of babies and children up to age 4. States -- and by extension, local school districts -- would pay for education services for children at age 4 and up.


Trends show that Head Start is already taking on a higher proportion of very young children than it used to, while state-funded pre-K programs typically aim only at 4-year-olds or children one year before entering kindergarten. Head Start officials in Tulsa, Okla. -- where there are already strong ties to the state's pre-K program -- are seriously considering this approach.

Since Head Start is aimed at families with very low-incomes, and research has shown that cognitive gaps between the poor and the middle-class start as early as nine months old, this could give poor children several years of support so they aren't too far behind before they start pre-K.


But there is the risk of yet more disconnection. Would we simply be shifting the already problematic division between K-12 and early childhood systems down by one year, creating an artificial divide at age 4 instead of age 5, where it sits today?

Future of Head Start

Children from whatever social/economic level share basic needs. Cognitive, social and emotional needs do not recognize artificial boundaries...period.

I say all money needs to be combined at the state level and follow minimum federal guidelines. At the state level local community needs and priorities would act as a filter determining exactly how funds would be distributed. All stakeholders need to watch out for greed.

So called cultural differences should be recognized to the extent that they serve the needs of families and children regardless of race, national origin or political persuasion.

Bert J. Wainwright

Brainstorming: 3 Tracks

We need to build consensus on "what matters" in early education and move away from the false dichotomy that early childhood programs concentrate on either language, vocabulary, pre-literacy skills, and numeracy or developing children's social and emotional skills.

We need both, of course, but there isn't broad level of understanding or consensus on that today. As we see more programs developing that combine learning and development with strong child outcomes, it will help to build that consensus, which, in turn should lead us to a more informed discussion of standards that is more outcome-oriented than input-driven.

It makes the most sense to blend the different revenue streams to provide preschool that attracts all kinds of families because of the inherent quality. If we can find mechanisms like chartering or performance contracts that provide this flexibility in exchange for strong outcomes, we'll begin to see progress in improving quality. A key underlying assumption to this is that program managers, from agencies monitoring quality early learning programs, also know "what matters," and that they are given leeway to resist compliance measures that bring programs to the lowest common standard.

question authority

Whatever the direction, it's the authorities that place children in the current pickle. The exposure children now experience from "caring" institutions is horrific. If you want your child to shut down early, my guess about 90% of any child care setting will sufficiently tramatize.

In Hawaii, the enclosed space requirement is 24 sq. ft. per child. Federal research in the 70's by Elizabeth Prescott determined optimal is 42 sq. ft. per child. Does the federal government say anything? No. The state says, "This is how we do it here.". 30 state advisory board members (licensing and university staff) voted unaimously to keep warehousing children.

The authorities that are making the decisions have failed and continue to fail at the most basic levels.

Head Start Futures

Thanks for such a thoughtful series. For me, the starting point for framing Head Start's future within a system of early education programs and funding streams is the goal of preventing or minimizing the achievement gap for young children from low-income, minority and language minority families.

If that's our goal, the message I glean from research & evaluation studies is that we need to provide high quality, intentional, enriched, intensive teaching and learning opportunities; begin as early as possible; provide sustained, well-sequenced programming over time; remove preventable barries to learning through screening, referral and treatment in the areas of health, mental health, vision, dental and disabilities; and engage parents. I would add that a key feature should be ongoing assessment of children's progress in a framework that highlights the need to accelerate their developmental and learning progress so that they will enter school on par with national norms for all young children.

So I see Head Start as a funding stream to work in concert with pre-k, child care, early childhood special ed., home visitation and other programs to ensure that as many disadvantaged youngsters, birth to 5 can participate in programs with the above attributes, whether via a stand-alone Head Start-managed set of birth to five centers using multiple funding sources, or blending H.S. $ on top of other funding streams.