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Mel Gravely

Sharing Data to Maximize Impact of Head Start Nationally

Head Start StaffLong-term studies that follow children into adulthood have shown that the alumni Head Start are more likely to graduate high school and have better adult life outcomes than similar children who were not in the program. So we can see that Head Start has a positive impact and does work, but how can we maximize its impact and get the most out of it?

By improving quality in Head Start programs to match what research shows matters most for young children’s development and adopt the practices of high-quality preschool programs that have stronger results. Earlier this year the Department of Health and Human Services proposed changes to the program’s standards that would seek to do exactly that.

Maximizing the program’s impact would also require constructing a culture of learning and continuous improvement within Head Start. It would encourage grantees to review how they are doing, as well as giving an opportunity to improve the quality and outcomes through experience over time. As an end result, they would be able to share what they learn with others.

As authors Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel recently discussed in their article for U.S. News & World Report, “At the local grantee level, all Head Start grantees need systems of data collection and analysis that support data-informed, evidence-based continuous improvement, leading to better results for children and families. Head Start grantees collect and report data on a variety of outcomes, but effectively using this information to improve quality and outcomes requires a high level of intentionality, planning, and expertise in analyzing, interpreting and acting on data.”

Making data-informed continuous improvement should be the rule, but it will require cultural shifts across all grantees. Local grantees and researchers will need to work together to share and analyze data in order to improve practices and child outcomes.

Of course, at the federal level, the Office of Head Start needs a way to maintain accountability and a performance measurement system that will allow officials to pinpoint and learn from trends and patterns in grantee performance. This would help the federal level support continuous improvement across the program as a whole by sharing practices of grantees that show high performance, and give them a way to intervene when it comes to low-performers.


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