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Early Childhood Education Pilot has Complex Mix of Concerns

Recently, the Office of Head Start (OHS) announced its 2014 recipients of the Birth-to-Five Pilot program. As a graduate of head start, head start training curriculum developer, and trainer, I am encouraged by the pilot.

If you know anything about head start, you realize how important it is as a community development tool when done effectively with integrity. That’s the OHS’s intention with this new initiative. It also serves to highlight the varied concerns that are important to any social program.

According to the Administration of Children and families,

ECE_coverOriginally announced last year, the pilot aims to give communities greater flexibility in designing Head Start and Early Head Start programs to better serve the needs of young children and communities from birth until they enter pre-k or kindergarten.

“The response to this Birth-to-Five pilot points to increased need for high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start,” said Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary and interdepartmental liaison for early childhood development for children and families. “This reinforces the administration’s early childhood plan to expand the home visiting program, increase access to infant and toddler care, and make pre-kindergarten available for all.” Read More


I do not think many are left who would argue that it is a good idea for providers to compete for the OHS program dollars. What may be missed is what the pilot also accomplished with expanding competition as one concern. They had to allow for innovation!

The OHS has a competency-based structure that is amenable to innovative programming, but the history-based insistence on traditional approaches, attempts to replicate post-K schooling, and some evaluative practices kept innovation to a minimum. This new pilot gave programs an intentional mandate to develop programs that meet the competencies in new ways. The competitive nature of the pilot meant that the best ideas competed rather than the “safest.” As the announcement states, continued funding will also be competitive. The OHS is also moving from indefinite grant periods to 5-year cycles overall. This will hopefully result in programs that focus on innovation, efficiency, and achievement of ALL competencies rather than inferior, reductive measures of child school readiness.

Starting Earlier

With the hype of baby developmental products matched with the desire of seemingly every parent to see her child read, potty train, and walk as soon as possible, some may miss the lessons of child development. A move to earlier child education is less about books and math. It is more about the environment. Children are each different. They develop at different paces. The environment, both structure and influences, is as important an ingredient as “education.”

It is paramount that we not forget that the primary contribution if head start programs is the provision of home visits and establishment of a network around parents. This network connects them with their communities. It engages them intentionally in the development of the child. This community and supportive environment is THE engine of education for the young child.

What many do not realize is that head start is the only social program that actively recruits recipients as staff. In fact, over 1.3 million adults volunteered through head start in 2011, the last year data has been tabulated. A mom or dad with the program can work as a teacher, family service worker, bus driver, or cook. He or she can work up to being a team leader or site manager. The esteem, mobility, and continued development of parents further enhances the environment that the child grows and learns within.

The Pre-K Prep Argument

Recent criticism of head start has focused on the research explaining that the gains of early childhood education even out with children not in such programs by 3rd grade. Those who are not familiar with the services of head start may not realize that the span between kindergarten and third grade represents a tremendous loss of services. It is my hope that the findings of the research give impetus to us for school improvement beyond kindergarten.

The studies in question recognized that children moving from head start to kindergarten were developmentally and academically ahead. By the time they were in 3rd grade, the other children had caught up. One way to interpret this is to say that the school system could not maintain the gains. But, I would rather focus on a question of competition, parental involvement, and community supports in the public school system. Consider what education would be and what our communities would be if schools operated like head start programs: If they competed each year on innovation, if their model was to develop community through parents, if the “service” to families was equal to the “education” mandate. I am looking forward to the day when OHS launches that pilot.

Written by Dr. Michael Wright

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

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