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Teachers with bachelor’s degrees. Diversity. Hands-on learning. Bilingual classrooms. These are some of the qualities parents dream about when looking for preschool programs. They’re also a few of the ingredients that can be found in the nation’s best Head Start centers, according to a recently released report. For years, researchers and academics have debated the success of federally-funded Head Start programs, with the only real consensus being that quality varies dramatically across centers. “Leading by Exemplar,” a series of reports and case studies by the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, identified five of the most successful Head Start programs in the country, as defined by long-term data on post-kindergarten outcomes. That data include third grade reading performance, absenteeism rates and grade-level retention numbers. Head Start programs nationwide are beholden to many of the same requirements, including small class sizes and the use of state early learning standards. But Ashley LiBetti, the associate partner of policy and evaluation at Bellwether who authored the series, found there are several additional traits that set high-performing Head Start centers apart.
Here are some of those factors that she says contribute to the “secret sauce” of a successful program:
- Full-day programs: This makes sense, as research shows children who attend full-day preschool programs do better on math and literacy tests than children who attend part-day programs. But full-day preschool is not a panacea if the center doesn’t have the resources to maintain quality during these longer hours. A 2016 report found some of the lowest-quality Head Start programs offered longer hours, perhaps because centers were “trying to do too much with too little,” according to this NPR article.
- Lead teachers who have bachelor’s degrees: The majority of the programs identified by the report as “Head Start exemplars” boast staffs where 100 percent of lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree. Research has found that teachers with bachelor’s degrees are critical in high-quality programs and their training directly impacts their teaching in the classroom.
- Thoughtful professional development for teachers: All of the successful programs identified in the report provide individual coaching to teachers as the main form of professional development. Larger trainings for staff members are based on patterns coaches see from their observations, such as the need for guidance on how to help students read aloud or how to support dual-language learners. Programs also use student and classroom data to plan professional development sessions.
- Extensive family engagement practices: The programs all prioritize relationships with families, and offer support when needed. One program has advocates who help vulnerable families that have children enrolled in Head Start connect to local services and find resources. Another has a family engagement team that runs group meetings and education programs for parents and conducts home visits.
- Program staff who analyze data: The Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP Tulsa) Head Start program, for example, has an in-house research team that collects and analyzes data, looking at correlations between student performance, teacher qualities, demographics and attendance. Customized analyses are then created for various staff members to make program-level and classroom changes as needed.
- Tailoring curricula to meet the needs of kids: The programs that were most successful created their own curriculum by combining multiple curricula or developing one in-house, rather than just using a curriculum as written. LiBetti described these programs as paying “obsessive attention” to what they were teaching children.
Just how are these centers able to go above and beyond? While some of these practices require more time or staff expertise, others require more money. LiBetti said these centers receive external funding in addition to federal and local sources, including from philanthropic sources. They have also created unique partnerships with universities, local governmental agencies, and chambers of commerce to provide professional development and more services for families. You can read the full report here, as well as case studies of the individual programs and profiles of exemplary Head Start centers
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!
This story about head start was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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