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The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade

Marnie Kaplan
Sara Mead
Publication

In 2007, Congress and then-President George W. Bush set out to improve Head Start by passing a law that made significant changes to the program. These changes included a requirement that half of all Head Start teachers hold a bachelor’s degree with training in early childhood education by 2013.

We examined the impact of the 2007 law and the current state of the Head Start workforce with the goal of informing both future efforts to improve the quality of Head Start teaching and broader efforts to strengthen the early childhood workforce.

In our new paper, "The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade," we trace the evolution of Head Start Workforce policies over 50 years and detail how shifts in the broader early childhood landscape, especially state-funded pre-k programs, have influenced these policies.

We find that while the bachelor’s degree mandate succeeded in raising the credentials of Head Start teachers, it did not alleviate — and in fact may have exacerbated — other challenges related to recruiting, retaining, and compensating a high-quality Head Start workforce.

We also find that teacher credentials, compensation, and retention vary considerably across individual Head Start programs, types of Head Start providers, and states. Finally, our analysis revealed the strong interconnection between Head Start and the larger early childhood workforce and how these systems can complement or impede each other.

Federal policymakers and local grantees should continue working to increase the qualifications and skills of Head Start and other early childhood teachers. But they must also consider the broader context in which Head Start teachers work, including compensation levels, quality of early childhood educator preparation programs, and how the broader early childhood landscape and K-12 teacher workforce trends affect the employment market for Head Start teachers. Based on our analysis, we make five recommendations:

  1. Provide equitable compensation and benefits to Head Start teachers.
  2. Include Head Start in state initiatives to build the early childhood workforce. 
  3. Develop systemic approaches to improve preparation for early childhood teachers.
  4. Continue to support high-quality, ongoing, job-embedded professional development for Head Start teachers. 
  5. Make Head Start a vehicle for promoting innovation in early childhood teacher preparation, support, and development. 

Click here to download the full report, or read it in the viewer below.