As our nation’s largest preschool program—and the only one exclusively focused on the poorest children—Head Start plays a critical role in our nation’s early earning and development system, and it will continue to do so. As policymakers seek to extend the benefits of quality preschool to more children, improving Head Start must be part of these efforts.
The best available research suggests that Head Start programs improve children’s kindergarten readiness at school entry; that participating in Head Start has significant long-term benefits compared with no preschool at all; and that some Head Start programs are producing even greater results. At the same time, the results suggest that Head Start programs are, on average, not matching the results of the highest-performing pre-k programs. If all Head Start programs matched the results produced by the best pre-k programs, we could dramatically improve outcomes for our nation’s poorest youngsters.
Since Head Start’s last reauthorization, in 2007, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, has implemented significant reforms that are improving the program:
These changes represent real progress, but additional change is still needed. Head Start continues to lack clear, comprehensive goals for program performance; to overemphasize compliance; to require programs to do too many different things; and to pay too little attention to curriculum. Head Start’s unique federal-to-local structure creates challenges in coordinating with state-run pre-k programs, efforts to improve child care quality, and the K-12 public school system. In addition, the designation renewal system can be improved to maximize its potential to drive quality improvement and attract high-quality new providers to Head Start.
In “Renewing Head Start’s Promise: Invest in What Works for Disadvantaged Preschoolers,” Sara Mead offers several recommendations to enable Head Start to better serve children and families:
Maximize the effectiveness of designation renewal:
Set clear goals and measure program performance:
Increase flexibility to innovate:
Carefully explore options to expand the state role in Head Start while protecting federal investments and comprehensive services for Head Start children.
By strengthening Head Start we can improve both the school readiness and long-term life outcomes for our nation’s most disadvantaged youngsters.