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Advisory Panel Issues Recommendations for Head Start

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has just released a long report from a group of early-childhood experts who two years ago were tapped by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to advise the agency on how to improve the nearly $8 billion Head Start program.

The report—which, to be clear, is not the much-delayed national evaluation I wrote about yesterday—is a thorough discussion of recommendations for improving the effectiveness of Head Start that is based, in part, on the panel's review and interpretation of previous studies of the program for low-income 4-year-olds and its sister program for younger children, Early Head Start.

Committee members made recommendations in three major areas: using data to improve school readiness and other key outcomes, using evidence-based practices, and improving the coordination of services from prenatal to age 8.

Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director of the federal Head Start office, said in a statement that the agency "will use these recommendations in our ongoing research and programmatic efforts to maintain our high standards and expectations for all Head Start programs. By ensuring that we stay ahead of the curve, Head Start can continue to provide underprivileged children with the tools they need to keep pace with their peers in educational, social, and emotional development."

In a letter to Sebelius, the committee provides a condensed version of what's in the full report. Notably, the committee presents and discusses findings from earlier studies, including the Head Start Impact Study (the final piece of which will be the 3rd grade follow up that Congress has been asking for), and highlights its concerns about "conclusions drawn in some media and policy arenas regarding the effectiveness of Head Start based on evaluations of other early-childhood programs."

The committee contends that no other early-childhood program has ever undergone the level of scrutiny and study that Head Start has, and that making comparisons to results in studies of other programs, including public prekindergarten, would be "inappropriate." The letter also highlights the committee's conclusion that while studies have shown that the positive impacts of Head Start participation don't last into elementary school, the "role of elementary school quality in supporting gains from intervention programs is not well understood."

That's an interesting point to make before the agency gets around to publishing the 3rd grade follow-up portion of of the national impact study. If those forthcoming results look like those from an earlier phase of the evaluation (researchers found that the positive effects of Head Start participation had diminished by the end of the 1st grade), these points might make for a good defense of Head Start, which, like many discretionary spending programs right now, is vulnerable.

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