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

By 10/06/2010

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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.

Comment on this article
  • Charlene Wilkerson says:

    It’s about time that someone decided to check into what is going on inside Head Start classrooms. They need to have cameras in every classroom where a central office, a regional office, and even the National offices of Head Start can have skilled professionals view what is going on in any classroom anywhere in the United States. These individuals would be given the duty of performing random audits of Head Start classrooms. These skilled professionals would represent the tax payers who are funding Head Start and would not be auditors employed by Head Start. Nothing will change if the taxpayers funding Head Start allow Head Start to govern themselves. Nothing will change as long as the taxpayers allow the fox to guard the eggs

  • jane doe says:

    While I agree there must be regulations. I disagree with the statement about the children not learning, and staff being shoddy. I am a Head Start teacher and have been for four years now. I absolutely love my job and can see the difference I make on a daily basis. Most of my students wouldn’t know even how to spell their name if it weren’t for Head Start. I go by the kindergarten standards in my classroom. I am NAEYC accredited and a level 4 on Paths to Quality. The majority of my students meet state standards and beyond upon entering kindergarten. My classroom is observed often and high standards are held. I take pride in my job, It’s unfortunate that all of Head Start gets thrown into the mix of Head Starts that are not as great.

  • Jen says:

    Wow, I am shocked. I became involved with the program 16 years ago with my children and through Head Start not only did my children learn but so did I. My 2 older children were in the combination class which meant that they went to school 2 days a week and their teacher would come to our house once every 2 weeks. Melissa was a great teacher not only for my children but for me as well, she gave me the courage to get a drivers license at the age of 30. She also set family goals which we achieved, including me going to get a degree. I have now been a center based teacher at Head Start for 13 years and I have a BS degree in Early Childhood specializing in Disabilities. We assess our children 3 times a year to determine wether or not our children are gaining. We meet with each parent 6 times a year, this includes 4 home visits and 2 parent teacher conferences. When we are at the home visits we find out many things about our parents and what they need. We supply winter coats, we have donated food, we pool together when they are in need. We bring them to their dental appointments which is a four hour drive and put them up in an hotel. We bring them to LIEP, WIC, Weatherization, QLC, we get them to their children’s IEP’s and whatever else they may need.
    If Head Start is so bad then why are the public schools SPED programs teaming up with us? The public schools SPEd prograam kept getting dinged every year for having all their children in 1 classroom with no PEER’s to look up to. 5 years ago our public schools SPED program teamed up with us. Their children are now in our classrooms, we have a speech pathologists, occupational therapist, special education teacher and many para’s on staff. We also have meetings with public school teachers and they can always tell which childen have been involved with Head Start not only because of what the children can do but how involved the parent is.
    I love my job and I can honestly say that I love every family that I have ever worked with and without Head Start I don’t know where some of them would be right now. The only thing that truly gets me is that my sister owns a daycare and she makes $45,000 a year and I make $12.87 an hour, so who do you think has it better? I don’t just play with the children, I don’t just talk over coffee with the parents. I am the first one here every morning and the last one to leave every night. I am dedicated to Head Start and think its time that everyone learns how hard we work and all the hoops we jump through.

  • Michelle says:

    Your stories and fantastic and I have absolutely NO doubt that there are a lot of wonderful Head Start teachers out there, but there are also some ineffective programs and they need attention.

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