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New Report Offers Ideas for 'Renewing Head Start's Promise'

This year, Education Week is exploring the policy initiatives that were born 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. This week, both in the blog and in the newspaper, I will offer a closer look at Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for children from low-income families, and the policy debates surrounding it.

Head Start did not officially launch until the summer of 1965, but the seeds of its birth had already been germinating in the mind of his top anti-poverty policy adviser, Sargent Shriver. In late 1964, Shriver would pull together a team of academics who, in less than two months, would create a framework aimed at providing health, social, emotional, and academic supports to poor children. The ideas were enormously ambitious—and faced challenges from the start that echo to this day.

Fortuitously, Sara Mead, a policy analyst with Washington-based Bellwether Associates (and a former edweek.org blogger) released a report late last month, "Renewing Head Start's Promise," in which she outlines what she sees as Head Start's strengths, its weaknesses, and areas where the program can be strengthened for the future. 

The report offers a historical perspective of Head Start, along with a close look at current policy initiatives. Mead's report says that the current efforts are a promising start, but need to go deeper in order to create a more nimble structure able to meet the challenges the program will face in coming years. 

An example explored in the report: In the law's 2007 reauthorization, Head Start shifted from open-ended grants to a five-year grant cycle. Some low-performing programs must compete for continued funding against anyone else in the community willing to apply.

Mead said the competition process is too opaque, too focused on issues of compliance, and has not done a good job recruiting new providers. Among her suggestions to policymakers and to Head Start: release information on how grantees are evaluated and scored in the competition; cut back on the program's voluminous regulations, and allow grantees to request waivers for others; and create a robust recruitment pipeline for community groups that may want to run Head Start programs.

"The most important thing is to align Head Start with the goals that we have with the performance of children," Mead said in an interview. "As a correlate to that, we need to find ways to create a performance measurement that is not primarily about punishing programs, but [identifying] who is doing a great job." 

Later this week, I will post an interview I conducted with acting Head Start director Ann Linehan, who will talk about how the Head Start competition process has been received both at the federal and the grantee level.

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