A New Start for Head Start — If Congress Doesn’t Get in the Way

The Head Start program has needed a radical overhaul for the past 45 years, i.e. ever since its founding and its near-immediate demonstration that it doesn’t do much lasting good by way of readying poor kids to succeed in school. But Head Start’s iconic status, powerful lobby and influential friends have stymied every effort to turn it into a proper school-readiness program and to purge it of its many shoddy operators. Congress has been willing to pay only lip service to such reforms and when the Bush administration—under Wade Horn’s brave leadership—sought to make them unilaterally, the lobbyists kicked up a major ruckus and Congress made the HHS department back off.

Now the Obama administration is trying again and one can only hope that they, too, aren’t blocked. Proposed new regulations would subject the least effective 25 percent of Head Start grantees to not having their grants renewed, which in the past has been virtually automatic. This is a big deal if done properly—veteran Head Start observer and critic Ron Haskins terms it “potentially…the most serious reform in the history of Head Start.” The tricky part, of course, is determining what constitutes effectiveness. And that’s not resolved. The draft regulation states that “we are requesting public comments on several possible criteria to use to strengthen the test for redesignation of poorly performing Head Start grantees.” One path they’re considering leads to traditional input-and-process measures while another points toward “evidence-based rating instruments,” i.e. sophisticated gauges of student-teacher interactions and school readiness. Settling for the first of those paths is just another tightening of regulatory screws. By contrast, the second path incorporates a serious and much-needed overhaul not only of Head Start but also of how the entire early-childhood community defines “quality” in preschool programs, much more akin to where K-12 education has been moving these past twenty years. The Head Start lobby won’t like it at all. We’ll see whether Congress intervenes. Cross your fingers.

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