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'Head Start works'

By Dylan Matthews

Danielle Ewen is the director of child care and early education policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a think tank focusing on policies to support low-income people and families. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion of the current federal policy regime around child care and preschool follows.

Let’s suppose I’m a parent. Two-income household, the parents work. I have a 3-year-old. And I’m looking at state and federal programs to help me get either day care or preschool other child care for my kid. What’s out there, depending on how much I’m making?

If you’re a parent, with a 3-year-old, and you’re a family that’s making just around the poverty level, you’re eligible for the Head Start program, and so you can go to the Head Start program in your community and apply. Generally families get in. Right know we’re only serving about 50 percent of eligible families in Head Start with 3- and 4-year-old children. There are communities that have wait lists even for Head Start.

If you’re not eligible for Head Start, or you can’t get in, you may go look at local child care providers in your community. That can be anything from what’s called a family child care provider, who is generally a woman in her own home taking care of children, to a child care center, and some of those are on the corner, and some of them are big -- Bright Horizons, large, privately owned providers that are serving children. Those are generally licensed by the state so they meet very basic health and safety standards and in most states parents don’t have any way of knowing what’s quality.

If you find a child provider and you’re a working family, you can go to the state and you can get a subsidy to take care of some part of the cost of care. And again we’re only serving about 17-18 percent of families who are eligible for those subsidies. Your chances of getting one are quite slim. California has upwards of 200,000 people who are waiting for a subsidy.

If you’re a family that needs help paying for child care you may well be out of luck, so you’ll have to find something you can afford within your family budget. We know families borrow money to pay for child care, they go into their savings if they’re fortunate enough to have some, or in the worst case families actually can’t afford care and they have to go onto the TANF program because they can’t work and pay for child care. We want them to be able to go to work and we want children to have access to care.

The administration in its latest budget has upped funding for a lot of these programs -- Head Start and the block grant program, etc. I’m specifically interested in the Early Learning Challenge Fund. What’s the idea behind that and how might it change the policy outlook?

The Early Learning Challenge Fund is an idea that says, we have core programs that pay for access and obviously that are underfunded, and we need to deal with that, but we need to help states think about how to build the quality of the system for all children. What the challenge fund does is it establishes a metric race and says, how are we going to make sure that more low-income children, more at-risk children, have access to high-quality care, which is what we’ve been trying to do for years.

What the challenge fund does is it says: We’re going to say to states we’ll put money on the table, you put money on the table; we’re going to say what quality is, we’re going to have these things called quality rating systems that help providers know what quality and help them move towards it, we’re going to give states money to build their systems, and we’re going to challenge them to move toward higher quality.

The challenge fund is a competitive grant. The way it was written in the House, which is the only proposal we know about because there was never a formal Senate proposal, there would be two tiers of states: states that are essentially developing their system and states that have a system but need to really invest in it and move more children and more providers toward these higher-quality levels.

So it’s a great idea, it’s a way to say we have infrastructure supports through Head Start, we have infrastructure supports through Child Care Development Block Grant, we have resources but how can we really help states invest in quality so that we get those children in the best programs. It’s a different way of thinking about the system.

It acknowledges that we have a class disparity in our system where families can’t afford to buy quality, it says the responsibility here is for the states to help build quality, to invest in quality, to get teachers better education and training and then salaries commensurate with that experience, to make sure the facilities children are in really meet their needs from a broad developmental perspective, which means that they have dress up areas, and lots of art materials, and multiple books for every child and lots of play space both indoors and outdoors so the children can run and grow and play and laugh.

That we have lots of opportunities for providers to interact and learn best practices even beyond their education and training, that directors in child-care centers both have access to the resources they need to improve the quality of where kids are to invest in training for their providers, to make sure that they’re looking at their program, that they’re investing in curriculum, that they’re investing in the kinds of things that make everybody in the center better.

That we have a plan to screen young children while they’re in child care, because we now know that the earlier we intervene with children who have special needs, both physical and developmental, the better off they are down the line and potentially the fewer interventions they need when they actually reach school. So one piece of the challenge fund actually says to states, we need this system for screening all kids, and let’s use the child-care community to do part of that, to make sure that kids are getting what they need and that we’re putting those with the most risk factors in the best-quality setting.

Another thing you’ve mentioned in your writing on this as a means for federal policymakers to support quality improvements is Title I and increasing funding through Title I. First of all, what is Title I, for those of us who are not involved in education policy on a consistent basis, and secondly, how would that work and interact with other programs?

Title I is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as No Child Left Behind, and it has gone through many iterations over the 40-50 years it’s existed. It used to be called Chapter I, for those of us who are very, very old. And it is money that goes to local school districts to do whatever they need to do to improve outcomes for children at risk. It is for low-income children, it goes to nearly every school district in the country, and then school districts get to decide how to spend the money.

The money is available to be spent for children from birth through age of school entry, and then, obviously, in K-12 as needed by the school district. What we’ve found when we started looking at the dollars is that they’re incredibly flexible, for a variety of programs and purposes for children, they’re generally concentrated in the early elementary grades. So we started thinking about how those dollars could be used for children before they reach kindergarten.

What we found is that lots and lots of schools are using money providing high-quality services that include comprehensive services -- access to dental care, access to referrals for medical care, vision and eye screening, as well as paying for highly qualified teachers to have a degree in early childhood education. What we think the benefit of Title I is is not solely as a funding stream that can pay for these services, rather that it’s part of the planning of quality care.

As I said before, Head Start is a high-quality program that is available for families at or below poverty. But we know the difference between a child living at 100 percent of poverty and one living at 110 percent of poverty is negligible, if it exists at all. What Title I can do is expand access to those children who are just above the income cutoff, to give them access to Head Start’s services.

We know that the more hours children are in school, the better the outcomes for those children are, the likelier they are to thrive in school, so Title I can make it possible to have a full school day, or even a longer program. Title I can become part of the resources that are dedicated to providing full day, full use services for low income students. We don’t see it as a funding source to be tapped on its own, we really see it as a way to build up overall resources in a community and to fill gaps.

Title I dollars can also be used to pay for professional development. As I said before, a key piece of building quality is to make sure teachers have the education and training they need to support children’s development and learning. Title I dollars can be used to pay for some of that professional development even for teachers who are not in the schools, who are out in the community, who are in a community-based child-care program, who are in Head Start, who are in Ms. Mary’s day care, to build the experience and knowledge.

That’s a great way to connect what’s going on in schools and what’s going on in the community and make sure children start having really seamless crossings between developmental domains and really prepare them for learning and thriving down the line.

There’s a large literature ascribing benefits to early childhood education and particularly to high-quality early childhood education with small class sizes and good teachers. There was a study in January of Head Start students that seemed to raise doubts about whether they were seeing improvements relative to their peers. Is that a fair interpretation of it? What’s your case for the effectiveness of Head Start as far as the empirical evidence?

Head Start works. We have four decades of evidence that Head Start works and the report that came out earlier this year shows that Head Start children moved forward, that they have gains from their Head Start year. It raises concerns about what happens to them when they leave Head Start. I think it’s a legitimate question about whether you blame the people who had them a year ago or if you look at what’s happening to them now. Is it the fault of Head Start what happened to you in first grade, or is the fault of what happened in between?

A lot of places we don’t have full-day kindergarten, we don’t even in many communities have kindergarten, so if you go from a great Head Start program and there’s nothing to go into, you have to take those things into consideration. Head Start is a critically important support for poor families. It provides not just really strong educational services for those children but it also provides comprehensive services and supports that they need to thrive. It makes sure that children who can’t see the board can get the glasses they need.

We had a child in the Maryland area about three years ago who died from lack of dental care. Head Start can make sure that children get access to those kind of evaluations so that they are well taken care of, because if you have a tooth ache you can’t learn. That child literally died from a cavity because he didn’t have access to dental ache. Head Start makes sure things like that can’t happen to poor kids

Having said that, that doesn’t mean the program can’t be improved. Head Start providers around the country and the federal office of Head Start are working very, very hard to ensure that only the best quality programs get Head Start can get grants, they’ve stepped up their monitoring, they’re holding providers in Head Start to very high standards, and that’s only going to have increased benefits for young children.

Head Start has been supported on a bipartisan basis for most of the last five decades, and I hope that it will continue to be, because we wouldn’t have this enormous network of Head Start graduates around the country who are paying taxes and raising families. We have alumni around the country who are doing amazing things. They’re running companies, there’s a state senator in New Mexico who’s a Head Start alumnus. Head Start has made the dreams come true of children and families across the country for a very long time, and I hope it will continue to exist and do that for a long time to come.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  |  August 27, 2010; 11:24 AM ET
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You flat-out asked her about empirical evidence of Head-Start's effectiveness and she ignored your question. Her only retort was that it worked. I guess that's good enough for me :-/

Posted by: novalifter | August 27, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

The empirical evidence from the Impact study confirms that "access to Head Start has a positive impact on children‘s preschool experiences. There are statistically significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on every measure of children‘s preschool experiences measured in this study." The issue is that many of the gains in cognitive domains disappear by first grade.

Posted by: yanhast01 | August 28, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

There actually evidence that Head Start is effective but much of the discussion is about what does effectiveness mean. If you mean does Head Start help families deal with the systematic effects of poverty, then yes it is effective. However, the 2007 re-authorization placed more emphasis on school readiness than ever before. Many parents improve their social standing while in Head Start and their child receive high quality child development services at the same time. If you consider effectiveness putting Head Start students at the exact same level cognitively as their middle class peers then you aren't going to see that. It just won't happen because the affects of poverty on families is a very real thing, not just a policy point as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan recently suggested.

Posted by: circle-time-blogspot-com | August 29, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

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