Head Start

Head Start’s Leadership Role in the Field of Early Care and Education

Head Start in da heartThe foundation for my consulting and training work in Head Start.

For more than 22 years I served as a Head Start Director. My program, and the community action agency I worked for, are in northwest Vermont. During that time, I was selected and appointed to numerous state and national groups focused on the continuous improvement of child and family systems and programs. These experiences included serving as Chair of the Vermont Head Start Association for more than 20 years, serving on national workgroups convened by the National Head Start Association, and providing consulting on various issues pertaining to the development and management of high-quality programs for the Head Start National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations (PMFO), and for the federal Office of Head Start in Washington, D.C. My areas of expertise include: 

  • Leadership in organizational development, and management and supervision practices, to build high-functioning program cultures and climates of engagement and support; 
  • Head Start workforce recruitment, development and retention, including compensation and benefits enhancement strategies; 
  • Program governance, including engagement with governing bodies and Policy Council to assure teamwork and clarity around roles, responsibilities, required information, and governance group composition requirements; and 
  • Collaborative partnership development, including leadership in cultivating and maintaining Head Start and Early Head Start collaborative partnerships with schools, child care centers and other early care and education providers.

My work in consulting and training continues to focus on these areas, as well as on advocacy around the future of early care and education, including the continued evolution of Head Start and its leadership role in this field. My ongoing work is informed by conversations, relationships and engagement, past and ongoing, with many leaders, professionals and families, about how we might optimize these systems for the future.

Head Start leadership in the field of ECE.

Head Start, launched in 1965 (and Early Head Start, launched nearly 30 years later), is truly visionary in its multi-disciplinary, “whole child and family” approach. The Head Start comprehensive services approach includes: early care and education for young children; health services coordination for young children and pregnant women; and family engagement and social service support for families. It was, and is, a daring and inspired vision for supporting child and family development.

Since its inception, Head Start has been connected to the most current science, research and best practice in the human services. The program has integrated: the continued, emerging research around the brain development of young children; professional teaching practices, inclusive of research-based curricula and assessment; robust support for children’s physical, dental and mental health needs, with a strong focus on social and emotional development; and family engagement and social service supports which build relationships and trust with families and which help to assure family wellness and stability, and optimize child development in partnership with families. 

Child in wheelchair with arms raised for happinessAt the national level, Head Start has been a leader in many aspects of professionalizing the field. Head Start has established requirements for credentialing of staff, with an emphasis on attainment of bachelors’ degrees in the field of early care and education. While not every program across the U.S. provides staff compensation and benefits on par with kindergarten – Grade 12 public schools, Head Start programs have often received annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) in the form of funding increases required to be used for increasing staff wages and benefits, leading to better compensation and benefits than most other providers in the field. Federal Head Start regulations – known as Performance Standards – require the provision of comprehensive services, and often set a higher and more rigorous standard of care than most state regulations for early care and education programs. These federal standards require, for example, smaller group sizes for children, lower teacher-child ratios, and more frequent child outcome assessment, than are often required by states.

Federal Head Start Program Monitoring – akin to an audit of program compliance with regulations and assurance of quality – provides programs with a schedule of monitoring review events to assure quality in management systems (e.g., finance, HR, program design, governance) and program services (e.g., early care and education services, health coordination and support services, and family engagement and social services). Head Start has National Training & Technical Assistance (TTA) Centers which engage with experts in the research and dissemination of best practice in child and family development, and help to promote consistent practice and excellence in programs across the country. These Centers include:   

  • National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations (PMFO)  
  • National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning (ECDTL) 
  • National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) 
  • National Center on Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety (HBHS) 

Regional TTA Networks – such as the New England Head Start Training & Technical Assistance Network – provide targeted TTA to individual programs, clusters of programs with similar interests or needs, and at state and regional events. Head Start State Collaboration Offices help to assure connectivity and partnership between Head Start programs and the work of state governments in developing and providing high-quality systems and services for children and families. 

Head Start has been a pioneer and at the forefront of all of these areas. It is a national leader in the field and, overall, has better resources, regulatory, support and accountability structures, and national scope, than any other child and family services program, and particularly around early care and education. As such, it bears the responsibility of leadership for the future evolution of the field. 

A Vision for the Evolution of Head Start and Leadership for the Field of ECE.

The continued evolution of Head Start will chart the course for the field of early care and education.

I see at least four major areas of significant and critical evolution for the program: an increasing shift to Early Head Start; reengineering “cost-per-child/family” formulas; enrollment adjustments; and reconceptualizing federal-to-local relationships.

1.  Increasing shift to Early Head Start.

The federal Office of Head Start (OHS) is keenly aware of the research and data around early brain development and the rapidly developing architecture of the brain, particularly from birth to age 3. Furthermore, I suspect that OHS is also aware that, in terms of community need at the state and local levels, one of the singular greatest, unmet needs is around high-quality infant / toddler care. And, in some states, there is additional state revenue going into pre-K, leading to more ECE program capacity for preschool children, but not necessarily for infants and toddlers. For these reasons, OHS has, in recent years, rightly prioritized expansion of the Early Head Start program rather than preschool Head Start. My suggestion is that OHS consider very seriously the true cost of high-quality infant / toddler care, and prioritize child health and safety as the foundation for this care. Children ages birth to 3 require even more support than preschool children, meaning lower teacher-child ratios and, in some cases, more specialized care. Public schools, even those which provide pre-K, are typically not in the business of infant / toddler care, so there is no other large scale “model” to consider, and private, non-EHS providers of infant / toddler care may not have the robust funding, resources or other capacities needed to look to as a model. Thus, Head Start’s evolving EHS model may, in large part, chart the course for the rest of the nation in this critical area.

2.  Reengineering “cost-per-child/family” formulas.

When OHS awards federal Head Start grants to local organizations, it establishes the overall funding amount for program operations and the number of participants to be served by the program. Dividing the funding amount for program operations by the number of participants yields what OHS typically refers to as “cost-per-child.”  I prefer to refer to this as “cost-per-child/family,” as a significant part of the program’s funding is dedicated to providing social services for families. The issue, in my mind, is that OHS must reengineer cost-per-child/family formulas for equity and transparency, taking into account regional cost differentials. Although it makes sense that the cost of living is much higher in San Francisco than in some rural parts of Vermont and that a program in the Bay Area may have a higher cost-per-child/family, in my decades with Head Start I’ve never seen a framework for determining how decisions are made around Head Start funding levels and how regional cost of living is considered. Surely there must be some metric used and, as a publicly funded program, that metric should be fully transparent to taxpayers and communities. 

Even with transparency, cost-per-child/family decisions should be reengineered for equity and to allow for programs to restructure if and when needed to optimize services and meet community need. By equity, I mean that I have seen where programs within the same state – without huge disparities in local cost of living – have wildly differing costs-per-child/family. Program A may have an EHS cost per child/family of less than $15,000, while neighboring Program B has an EHS cost-per-child/family of over $20,000. The low cost in Program A is likely attributable to the fact that its EHS program began years earlier and was primarily home-based, which is a less expensive model than Program B’s center-based programming. However, Program A is still required to conduct Community Assessments and align its programming with the current needs of the community. If the current need is for EHS center-based services, with cost of $20,000+, Program A is not awarded the extra funding needed and thus has little to no ability to provide the services provided by Program B. I suggest that programs in the same cost-of-living “zone” should be awarded the same (higher) cost-per-child/family. If one program has less expensive programming, let it invest the savings in staff wages and benefits, or other critical areas of quality and development.           

3.  Enrollment adjustments.

OHS has, to some limited extent, allowed for programs to reduce preschool Head Start enrollment while maintaining the same level of funding. What this means, for example, is that a program funded at $2 million to serve 100 children and families might be permitted to reduce enrollment to 85 children and families and maintain the $2 million funding level. The funding that had been used previously for the systems and services for 15 participants, in this scenario, might then be reallocated to areas such as staff wages and benefits. Folks who work for Head Start will tell you that no one wants to serve fewer children and families. However, it is a question of quality (e.g., staff wages and benefits) or quantity (e.g., number of participants served), and programs have been pushed to the brink on the quantity side of the equation. 

OHS should, in conjunction with cost-per-child/family reformulation, consider significant enrollment reductions with guidance to programs to reinvest the savings in: credentialing, wages and benefits; smaller group sizes; smaller teacher-child ratios; and other quality improvements. On the issue of smaller teacher-child ratios, one of the long overdue improvements is for OHS to acknowledge and support that classrooms for children birth to 5 should have a minimum of 3 teaching staff at all times. Many if not most classrooms function with 2 teaching staff, but this does not bode well for quality for children, and accelerates staff burnout. Finally, although programs may periodically receive Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA), there has never been a clear mechanism with OHS to take into account the variety of annual, escalating costs that programs face. COLA may help to some extent with wages and benefits, but it is not enough. Rent, facilities maintenance, utilities, technology improvements and replacement, and many other costs escalate on an annual basis. Leading the field of ECE means focusing on quality, and quality is contingent on funding to address costs which escalate on a regular basis.

4.  Reconceptualizing federal-to-local relationships.

Boy holding blocks with A, B, C on the blocksFinally, with the field of ECE in a state of evolution, we need to consider leadership and management practices at all levels. Having been in leadership for many years, I know the value of working collaboratively and prioritizing a growth mindset and an ethic of cooperation. I also know that not every decision can be made by consensus, particularly if some are literally responsible for the decision and some are not. That is the burden of leadership. 

With 22+ years in Head Start, I got to know the federal bureaucracy a bit – enough to know that, on occasion, there is inconsistency in how OHS works with local organizations and, occasionally, some inequity. The reality is that local organizations are working with the federal government which regulates and funds these organizations, and the power differential in these relationships is very real. I would encourage OHS to consider its relationships with local, community organizations, the balance of support and accountability shown by OHS to local organizations, and mindfulness around the power dynamics in these federal-to-local relationships. Perhaps this effort can help improve the culture and climate of the program, both locally and nationally, as we consider how these relationships and dynamics can be conceptualized and developed as federal-to-local partnerships. And, it is through these partnerships that together we can administer high-quality programs which support our outstanding staff and which provide world-class service for our nation’s most vulnerable children and families. And this is leadership – not just in the context of Head Start, but in establishing an ethic of partnership, cooperation and support throughout the field of early care and education as a model for our nation’s future.