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February 2003Vol. 4, No. 1Improving Head Start: A Common Cause

Wade F. Horn, Ph.D.
Assistant Secretary for Children and Families
Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

President Bush has made managing for results a guiding principle of his Administration since its inception. In accordance with that principle, we are working to make sure that we measure the outcomes of our efforts, not merely the processes and procedures that make up each of our programs. In the end, the most important indicator of any program's efficacy is whether it is, in fact, helping the people it is intended to help. Nowhere is this truer than for Head Start.

Although the Head Start program has been shown to have many benefits for parents and children, we need to do a better job of determining how well Head Start children across the country are being prepared for academic success once they enter school. In line with this, the President's "Good Start, Grow Smart" initiative challenges us to improve the operational effectiveness of Head Start programs by developing a systematic nationwide approach to assessing every child's school readiness. I believe that this initiative offers Head Start programs the opportunity both to showcase their achievements and to ensure that every child in Head Start develops the full range of skills he or she needs to succeed in school and in life.

To meet the President's challenges we are pursuing several approaches. The first effort, STEP (Strategic Teacher Education Program), launched last summer, is a comprehensive professional development program aimed at training Head Start teachers and child care administrators in the latest research on how to enhance children's early literacy, language, and math skills. STEP-trained teachers will return to their classrooms and become mentor-trainers for their colleagues, creating an ever-widening circle of better-trained teachers.

Yet, as vital as excellent training is for improving the Head Start program, it is not enough to stop there. To show our commitment to attaining positive outcomes for children, we are instituting a new outcomes-oriented national reporting system. This system will employ a common, core set of measures that will allow us to determine whether or not the children that Head Start serves are developing the early literacy, language, and math skills they need to be successful in school.

One of the strengths of the Head Start program is its local diversity, and we have no intention of diminishing the ability of local Head Start agencies to design programs to meet local needs. Local programs, for example, will be able to continue to use whatever curriculum and child assessment systems they currently employ that are tailored for their community's unique needs. However, it is only by establishing a common core of outcome measures, administered by each Head Start program in the same way, that we will be able to evaluate how well all Head Start children are doing and help them do better.

In developing this outcomes-oriented system, we will include only reliable and valid measurement tools that have been thoroughly tested and that take into account cultural, socio-economic, and linguistic differences. Where no such reliable and valid measurement instruments exist, we will enlist the best researchers to develop and refine them before including them in the outcomes-oriented reporting system. The goal is to include only those assessment tools that are reliable and valid for use with economically disadvantaged 4-year-old children.

Some have reacted to news of this approach with the fear that we intend to use the national reporting system as a "pass-fail" test for grantees. This is just not the case. Rather, the purposes of the system are first, to help with educational planning, and second, to identify which programs may need additional training and technical assistance to achieve good outcomes for children. If a particular program is not achieving the kinds of results we all want for children enrolled in Head Start, the response will not be to de-fund the grantee, but to provide intensive assistance designed to increase the capacity of that program to help children achieve good outcomes. Of course, despite all our efforts a particular program may be unable to produce good outcomes for its children. As prudent managers, we would take that into account along with other factors examined during our normal monitoring process. In some cases, we may determine that a different agency would be in a better position to deliver effective Head Start services. This approach is not a departure from procedures already in place to monitor how well grantees are performing.

I am also aware that some fear this system will become the equivalent of an entrance exam for kindergarten. Again, absolutely not. Yes, the information gathered by this system can--and should--be used to help children make the transition from Head Start to kindergarten. But it should never be used--and will not be used--to determine whether or not a child should be enrolled in kindergarten in the first place.

Recently, I was asked by a reporter when I anticipated we would start "de-funding" Head Start programs as a consequence of this new outcomes-oriented reporting system. My answer: I hope it will be never. That's because I am confident that this new outcomes-oriented system will be an effective tool in helping Head Start deliver quality services to children. Delivering quality services to economically disadvantaged children is what Head Start is all about. Working together, we will continue to do just that.

Related Items

Read more about outcomes of Early Head Start and preschool programs in the upcoming (March 2003) issue of Children's Bureau Express (