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'Moneyball for Head Start' Report Takes Data-Driven Approach to Improvement

Head-start-moneyball.jpgThe same data- and evidence-driven approach that was made famous by a former baseball general manager would dramatically improve the 50-year-old federal preschool program for young children, says a report written in partnership with Head Start advocates and good governance think tanks.

For example, Head Start needs to start investing more in research so that it can figure out the practices of the most effective Head Start centers and find a way to replicate them across the country, according to the report "Moneyball for Head Start." Currently, a quarter of a percent of Head Start's $8.6 billion budget is spent on research and evaluation, and that should be boosted to 1 percent, the report says.

The Office of Head Start should also be more transparent in reporting the performance of its approximately 1,600 grantees, which together serve more than 1 million children. Right now, the federal office collects a great deal of information about grantees, but that data is not shared in a way that could spur improvements, the report contends.

Shifting Head Start From Compliance to Performance Measures

Head Start is already making steps in the direction of data-driven processes. The program announced last year a major proposed rewrite of its performance standards, and part of that proposal includes requiring grantees to evaluate their performance and to set goals based on those evaluations. But that proposal only goes so far, says the report—federal oversight is still focused on compliance with Head Start's many rules, rather than outcomes. 

"Moneyball for Head Start" draws its name from the analytical approach popularized by former Oakland A's manager Billy Beane. Instead of relying on the intuition of baseball scouts, Beane used statistical analysis to put together competitive baseball teams. In 2014, the group Results for America published Moneyball for Government, arguing that those same tactics could be used to create effective government programs. 

Results for America is one of the organizations that supported this new Head Start report, along with the National Head Start Association and the Volcker Alliance, which was started in 2013 by Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel of Bellwether Education Partners wrote the report. 

Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, said in an article on the report for the Huffington Post that there are no shortage of "tinkerers" who have ideas to reform Head Start without really knowing the program. This particular paper embraces the views of people in the field who are sympathetic to the program, she writes, and "it also looks forward to how local programs can pursue stronger outcomes by using data to understand strengths, while identifying and intervening in potential areas for improvement."

Photo: Carmen Plascensia creates artwork during class at the Claxton-West Head Start Center, in Knoxville, Tenn.—Shawn Poynter for Education Week-File

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