Renewing Head Start’s Promise: Invest in What Works for Disadvantaged Preschoolers

The estimable Sara Mead is, as we’ve come to expect, perceptive about what ails today’s preschool options and advocacy campaigns, even as she strives to support (and repair) programs and policies that she knows are flawed. So it is with Head Start, by far the largest early-childhood program in the land, the only really big one that the federal government runs, and one that been in the news lately in part because it’s among the categorical programs that reform-minded Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan would like to turn over to the states via block-grant funding. Mead wants to change Head Start in major ways but not take it away from Uncle Sam. She remains confident that he’s capable of fixing it and doesn’t have great confidence in the states, though she acknowledges that some state- (and district-) operated preschool programs have stronger results than Head Start and says she would welcome a “pilot program” whereby a few states (after meeting multiple federal requirements!) would gain greater say over their programs.

Setting aside the federalism question and recognizing Mead’s earnest desire to fix Head Start rather than damn its failings, this report still amounts to a devastating critique of those failings in 2014 and of Uncle Sam’s inability so far to set them right.

Mead correctly recalls that Head Start began under LBJ as part of the “war on poverty,” not as a pre-K education program per se. She accurately reports that it was intended to “deliver services” to needy three- and four-year-olds, not just to prep them for school. Hence its thousands of local operators were judged not on any outcomes, let alone education outcomes, but on their compliance with myriad requirements related to the services they delivered and how they went about it. And despite a couple of Congressional- and executive-branch repair efforts (all of them opposed vigorously by Head Start’s feisty lobby and weakened by the program’s iconic stature), that’s still pretty much how it operates. Yet, as Mead declares, “the world has changed” and so must Head Start.

Here are its four “fundamental challenges” as she sees them:

  1. “Lack of Clear Performance Measures.” This immense federal program, fifty years on, has no outcomes gauges by which to know how much, if at all, participating children (or their families) are gaining or which operators are more effective than others.
  2. “Overemphasis on Compliance.” Not only does Head Start have no outcome measures, but its 1,600 local grantees are judged on their fulfillment of “2,400 detailed requirements on everything from potty-emptying to dental care to accounting.”
  3. “Lack of Focus.” In Mead’s words, “Head Start’s emphasis on comprehensive services reflects the integrated nature of child development and the complex, interrelated challenges that face poor families….The problem is that, when you’re trying to do everything, it’s hard to do anything well….Ultimately, Head Start’s mission should be to even the playing field for our poorest children by preparing them for school and life—which means addressing all domains of school readiness.” OK, I added the emphasis. But isn’t Mead here describing what most Americans believe the program already does?
  4. “Ignoring curriculum.” It turns out that the commercial curriculum used by two-thirds of Head Start operators “is not particularly effective.” Worse, the What Works Clearinghouse found that it has “no discernible effects on oral language, print knowledge, phonological processing, or math for preschool children.” In short, not a head start at all.

Mead believes that these enormous problems can be solved in Washington. I don’t share her optimism. But she’s done a valuable service by illuminating them and suggesting remedies that, in principle, would do Head Start—and America’s neediest preschoolers—a world of good.

SOURCE: Sara Mead, Renewing Head Start’s Promise: Invest in What Works for Disadvantaged Preschoolers (Washington, DC: Bellwether Education Partners and Results for America, July 2014).

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.