But the details of this plan matter. We need to get this right — especially in times of tight budgets. As those details are worked out with Congress and our partners in the field, we should look to what is already working in early childhood education. Head Start and Early Head Start are two effective and targeted investments our leaders have been making in pre-K education.
Through hundreds of studies over four decades, we have confirmed beyond doubt that Head Start participants enter kindergarten at an advantage and are better prepared for life and education than their peers. Head Start children have better health and wellness as teens and adults; higher high school and college graduation rates; and their parents are more engaged in their child’s education. Head Start children begin life with most risks and challenges. Children from poor families, homeless families, and those with special needs make up our Head Start classrooms.
A recent analysis of the Head Start Impact Study data by Oregon State University (OSU) researchers concluded that the durable benefits of Head Start are particularly evident in the highest risk children: children in foster care.
Making up for the missing foundation of a stable home, Head Start reaches these children who may not live in one place more than a month. Moving frequently, often between relatives, makes it difficult for children to establish secure relationships with adults and puts children at additional risk for behavioral and developmental problems.
As OSU assistant professor Dr. Shannon Lipscomb notes, Head Start is “a wrap-around program, which links child, teacher, and parent.” The study examined whether that approach made a positive impact on kids without a traditional family who, in some cases, have several caretakers. This research found that Head Start has significant, sustained benefits for these high-risk children, compared to children with similar risk factors who were unable to access Head Start. Notably, data showed that the relationships the children had with their teachers was improved by Head Start participation.
It is clear that Head Start’s whole-child focus gets results, delivering both academic and behavioral gains. Further, Dr. Lipscomb, an expert on early childhood development, noted that Head Start’s high standards for teacher qualification could be leading to more effective intervention “than caregivers in other types of programs in establishing positive relationships with children who have high needs.”
On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama delivered a call to action: all children in America can be ready for school if we invest in their academic and behavioral development. He views early education the way we do — as an economic imperative which will help to ensure the future health and well-being of the nation. Funding for Head Start and Early Head Start — reinforced by every president since the program’s inception — marks our commitment to that imperative.
So as we consider the president’s inspiring goal of expanding early education, let’s make sure we make the right choices for each child without losing sight of the ones who benefit the most from it. For nearly 50 years, Head Start has been getting results in preparing the neediest children for school, and leading the early childhood field in innovation and quality through both high standards and relentless insistence on excellence. It would be a disservice to our children to assume that interventions for young children are one-size fits all, but we must strive to ensure that they are able to access a high quality, comprehensive program that sets them on a path to lifelong learning.
With greater investment in the right interventions, we can prepare all children to succeed in school and life. And with strong education initiatives to bolster low-income families, America will establish a strong foundation upon which economic leadership can be forged.
Vinci is executive director of the National Head Start Association.