Time for Head Start 3.0

As Early Head Start celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and the Head Start program is about to mark its half-century, a timely reassessment of the program’s effectiveness and the problems it sought to address is overdue.

Head Start began as a key component of the “war on poverty.” After nearly 50 years, however, the nature of poverty in America has changed. 

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Today, a larger share of children grow up in single parent households, which are at or below the poverty line. Poverty also has become pervasive, in the sense that globalization has changed the rules of the game for the middle class. 

When the Great Society programs were launched, if you worked hard, obeyed the law, and earned a high-school diploma, you could access a steady job and benefits that would keep you out of poverty.  Today, the same technology and competition that makes life so tough for the poor also adversely impacts the less-well educated who previously entered the middle class.

In this new world, where we are hyper-connected in so many ways but in which inequality and economic insecurity have grown, it is time to think about a Head Start 3.0.  This could build on the important achievements of the pioneering 1960s program, and the reforms of it, which took place in a pre-Great Recession economy. A Head Start 3.0 could focus on preparing disadvantaged children for school in today’s changed circumstances. 

The achievement gap—the difference in educational outcomes between children growing up in economically disadvantaged homes and their more advantaged peers—remains a stubborn reality.  Five decades of social programs and economic growth have failed to solve the problem.

Research from Rice University academics Todd Risley and Betty Hart found that, by age three, children from low-income families hear, on average, 30 million fewer words than their peers growing up in more affluent homes.  This word gap—and related social and emotional skill deficits—become the achievement gap when children born into poverty enter kindergarten at a severe disadvantage, and never catch up.

Substandard urban K-12 public education perpetuates this tragedy, increasing the risk of dropping out--the surest way to ensure that a child fails to join society’s mainstream as an adult.

The cost of failing our most disadvantaged children is enormous.  When society fails to equip its future citizens for school and life, adults don’t realize their true potential, and all of us are worse off as a result.

Head Start is nearly 50, yet only 13 percent of African-Americans access education beyond high school, according to the Center for American Progress.

Strikingly, one-third of African-American students attend roughly 2,000 public high schools where less than 60 percent of the freshman class graduate in four years, the Children’s Defense Fund reports.

The consequences of our failure to prepare every child for school and careers last a lifetime.  African-American adults are twice as likely to be unemployed as white peers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found.  U.S. Department of Justice data also reveal that high-school dropouts are 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than their college-educated peers.

Head Start was conceived to provide comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement to low-income children and their families. Critics, notably, Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanKoch officials skeptical of Trump's alleged meeting invite Trump draws backlash for comments on slain soldier's father Muslim DNC speaker challenges GOP leaders to call Trump out MORE (R-Wis.), argue that its failure to close the achievement gap warrants its abolition. 

Studies differ as to the extent of the benefits of this federal investment; some report that children benefit well into their twenties, while others suggest the benefits disappear by third grade.  When teamed with high-quality, evidence-based and performance-oriented pre-K programs, however, public funding has been successful.

Head Start has 2,400 separate “performance standards."  This, as a recent Brookings Institution study noted, limits innovation and opportunities for replicating successful approaches.  The program also has been surpassed by publicly-funded programs, which currently operate outside of Head Start's framework, and which could be sensibly supported under its umbrella.

New Jersey’s state Supreme Court-mandated program, for example, closed about half the achievement gap before kindergarten, according to a multi-year study by the highly respected National Institute for Early Education.  Other publicly-funded programs have been similarly effective.

The public charter school model could provide a way forward.  The freedom to innovate, combined with strict public accountability for improved student performance and time-limited performance-based contracts, could give Head Start the reboot it badly needs.

Top-down federal initiatives and laissez-faire economics have both failed to eliminate the achievement gap.  A new and improved Head Start could learn from best practices and allow its adoption and replication, to the lasting benefit of America’s least advantaged children.

McCarthy is president and CEO of The AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation.

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