Head Start: A Durable Design for Early Learning

Some designs are classic, timeless. We think of the Model T, Oreo cookie and Wedgewood china. We think of the Acropolis and the Empire State Building -- or most Apple products. But the most interesting and durable designs may not be physical objects which can break, wear out, or crumble, but public policies like the grandest design for governance -- the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes it is methods or practices that persist because they were carefully designed. In early education, one can point to the Montessori or Reggio Emilia approach. And just recently I read that IDEO, the famed design firm, had designed a successful school system in Peru, working from the ground up with the teachers there.

Between now and next summer, we will be celebrating half a century of the timeless design of Head Start -- the national commitment to give each child, regardless of the zip code he/she was born into, an opportunity to succeed in school and in life. Yes, as strange as it may sound given the contentious climate that clouds today's policy ecosystem, Head Start was designed using a rational, intentional process of deliberation by an interdisciplinary group of top experts in child health, development, education, and early childhood education, based on research, and road tested by communities nationwide. The core design, set down in the Cooke Report, put forward a holistic view that in order to learn, a young child should be free of illness, not be hungry, and be able to see, hear and speak. And, that the child's family would be empowered by the respect and support of the child's preschool. Finally, to make sure that all of the money would go for intended uses, federal grants would go directly to organizations embedded in local communities.

In 49 years, over 30 million lives have been touched and transformed by this design. The "alumni" of Head Start are in all walks of life -- educators, business owners, poets, physicians, journalists, clergy, military personnel, social workers, sheriffs, politicians, researchers and performers. They smile when they talk about their time in Head Start. They even make public statements, like "From Head Start to Harvard" as Angel Taveras, the Mayor of Providence, RI, said in his election campaign. Many more millions of former Head Start teachers, volunteers, Board members and community partners tell their fond stories of being involved in this commitment to providing opportunity to the most vulnerable to reach for the American Dream.

Significant innovation in Head Start has occurred along the way -- developments in brain science created Early Head Start; Sesame Street figured out how to engage parents in the child's learning using a common medium; the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential became the first early childhood competence-based credential. The place-based nature of Head Start's delivery of the core design has resulted in a host of local innovations. And the elements of the Head Start system -- funding streams, standards, monitoring, professional development, curriculum, parent engagement -- have inspired all current early learning systems

Head Start's 50th Anniversary (Spring of 2015), combined with the states' new enthusiasm for state-run pre-Kindergarten, have touched off a flurry of suggestions for improving and reforming Head Start. Unfortunately, the eager would-be-tinkerers have overlooked an essential element of the process of improvement: the local consumers and deliverers of the Head Start model. Somehow, suggestions for reform are being made in the absence of their rich knowledge, experience, and insight into how Head Start works in diverse communities around the country. Oops.

Worse yet, in many cases, their premise that Head Start needs fixing is based not on an examination of the reality of today's vulnerable children, families, and communities (and yes, there are many improvements that should be contemplated to address that reality) but on a single study of questionable merit that has become an excuse for bashing Head Start. Or for offering to fix it.

Today, any company that would decide to redesign a successful product without consulting its consumers would be smart to remember what happened to Coke when it decided to change its formula and introduce "New Coke." Likewise, Washington's policy wonks would be smart to consider what might happen to their policies when the rubber hits the road. The unintended consequences would affect generations of our most vulnerable children and families.

In this, its 50th Anniversary year, the Head Start community has embarked on a massive grassroots effort to envision the changes in policy and practice that are needed in order to preserve the evergreen Head Start model. The process of recommending changes, innovations and any refreshments of the model will include the effort to hear every voice and every community in Head Start. And yes, it will also include hearing from the think tank gurus, policy wonks and legislators.

Head Start -- the nation's commitment to giving the most vulnerable children and their families an opportunity to succeed in school and in life -- is an evergreen design. Let us make sure that its redesign 50 years later ensures it continues to be the window of opportunity to the American Dream for generations to come.