It’s a crisis within a crisis: The pandemic has severely frayed America’s patchwork system of early education and child development. In Virginia, pre-kindergarten school enrollment declined nearly 20 percent between the 2019 and 2020 school years – most dramatically among children in low-income families. In San Antonio, Texas, the number of 4-year-olds participating in Pre-K programs decreased 30 percent. Many other cities and states have seen a similarly alarming decline in enrollments.
From a child development and equity perspective, the decline in enrollments is a national tragedy. During the pandemic, children also lose learning opportunities, experience more trauma, and face additional health risks. Children from low-income communities are most at risk of these negative effects. Good quality early childhood education is a powerful way to fill performance gaps and is related to positive outcomes – such as high school graduation and higher adult wages – that are achieved well beyond a child’s early years.
The latest federal stimulus package rightly aims to restore and expand early learning opportunities by allocating $ 40 billion to childcare workers and $ 1 billion to head start and early head start. And the American family plan, proposed by the Biden-Harris administration in late April, calls for a one-time investment of $ 425 billion in early childhood care and education.
The head start can provide important insights into what works for young children from economically disadvantaged families – and what works better.
Money is important. And across the country, many early childhood programs are doing incredible things. However, in order to “rebuild better” and develop an effective national early intervention strategy, the Federal Government must systematically develop, implement and evaluate increasingly effective approaches to support the children of our country. By building knowledge of what works best for whom, how, where, and why, and ensuring educators and decision-makers have access to this evidence base, we can go beyond individual success stories to ensure that funds are invested wisely will progress to the extent that our early intervention crisis – and future – requires.
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The federal government can and should address national challenges like these, and Head Start offers a unique opportunity. As the only early intervention program fully funded by the federal government, Head Start can provide important insights into what works for young children from economically disadvantaged families – and what works better. Considered a national laboratory, Head Start has taken the lead in the early childhood arena since its inception in 1965. However, Head Start research and evaluation funding has remained unchanged at around $ 20 million for more than a decade. This is less than a fifth of one percent of the total Head Start budget.
Our two organizations, the National Head Start Association and Results for America, have worked together for the past several years to improve the way data and evidence are built and used within Head Start. We have seen real progress in using evidence to improve services to children and families. And right now, the federal government is well positioned to advance an early childhood education agenda.
To find out what works and what works better in early learning, it is necessary to work together among the different organizations that provide education, health and early childhood development services.
We urge the Biden-Harris administration to continue the momentum of Head Start and other early childhood efforts to focus on results and evidence by:
- Develop a dynamic, intergovernmental, early learning agenda with a particular focus on children with the greatest needs. It should identify what practitioners and policy makers want to know about effective practices and interventions and be linked to existing evidence. The learning agenda should also set research priorities, inform funding decisions, and encourage collaboration between parties inside and outside the federal government.
- Increasing funding for early learning evaluations. We recommend that the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation of Administration for Children and Families, in collaboration with other federal agencies, invest at least an additional $ 100 million in evidence to improve early learning practices and to provide evaluation outcomes and other evidence Exchange with practitioners and practitioners in a user-friendly manner. These priorities should be aligned with the learning agenda outlined above. A portion of any new funding should be used for research-practice partnerships. These partnerships between Head Start providers and researchers provide a platform for regular assessment of which practices, guidelines, and conditions contribute to the success of children and families.
- Build an early childhood evidence repository. The early childhood learning field needs an evidence repository that is accessible, understandable and actionable for practitioners. This repository would meet the needs of frontline educators and other decision-makers, advance the use of evidence to inform practice, and ultimately improve early childhood programs.
The current moment of crisis can be a turning point for early learning in the US – but only if adequate federal resources are made available and more collaborative approaches are fostered.
Now is the time to step up efforts to improve our collective understanding and skills to drive learning and improvement in early childhood programs, including Head Start.
Yasmina Vinci is the executive director of the National Head Start Association. David Medina, Head Start Class from 1972, is COO and co-founder of Results for America.
This high quality early education story was produced by The Hechinger report, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.