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Head Start Could Be Innovator for Early-Childhood Workforce, Ed. Group Says

Head Start, the venerable 52-year-old federal preschool program for children from low-income families, could be serve a role in improving the early-education workforce as a whole, says a new report from Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington-based consulting firm. 

In The Best Teachers for our Littlest Learners: Lessons from Head Start's Last Decade, authors Marnie Kaplan and Sara Mead note that Head Start has led the way in requiring its teachers to have bachelor's degrees; currently 74 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's degree or beyond in early childhood or a related field. However, Head Start is not immune to larger trends in the early-childhood workforce, such as high turnover among teachers, the report notes.

The report offers several suggestions, including making teacher compensation a priority and including Head Start in overall state policies relating to early childhood. But one of its most interesting proposals is to use Head Start as a vehicle for "piloting innovative programs with the power to change the broader early-childhood landscape." 

This could include dedicated funding for experimental programs, similar to the Obama administration's Investing in Innovation grants, or flexibility for high-performing Head Start grantees to partner with researchers to try out new methods of professional development or compensation. 

Other potential innovations outlined in the paper: The departments of Health and Human Services and Education could work together to create high-quality teacher-preparation programs, including hybrid programs that meet in-person and online to meet the needs of underserved communities. Congress could also make research on early-childhood teacher preparation a priority for Head Start research funds, to build the base of knowledge for the field and identify effective practices.

The government has already been an innovator in the field, said Marnie Kaplan in an interview. For example, the child development associate credential, which is awarded based on training, tests, and direct observation, was created in the 1970s by what is now HHS.

"Head Start is poised to be the driver of this innovation again," Kaplan said. "Looking at Head Start is a window into how we can fix the [early-childhood education] system more generally." 

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