Head Start Exemplars

Blog Post
May 1, 2019

In a new report from Bellwether Education Partners, “Leading By Exemplar: Lessons from Head Start Programs,” the authors take a close look at five “exemplar” Head Start programs that have demonstrated evidence of positive effects on children’s learning that are substantially larger than the vast majority of the 1600-plus Head Start sites and other early childhood programs. They identify factors that contribute to their quality and offer common challenges and areas for improvement.

All Head Start grantees are held to the Head Start Performance Standards, which include extensive requirements on everything from program structure and personnel policies, to family engagement and children’s health, finance, and governance. Implementing and tracking them require significant work on behalf of grantees and the federal government. Yet, they appear to fall short of identifying factors influencing student learning gains. Even among programs that meet the standards, there is dramatic variation in student learning gains across programs, larger even than the variation among K-12 schools, the authors explain.

The authors of the report set out to do just that - to determine the factors that have the greatest influence on student achievement - by identifying Head Start exemplars and examining common practices among them. Their findings indicate that the components essential to moving the needle on student success lie not in the static requirements of input, such as teacher qualifications or use of a recommended curricula, but instead in how those inputs are utilized, implemented, and supported.

The authors find that each program’s model centers upon teacher autonomy and decision-making. Much of program efforts are centered upon ensuring quality instruction and maintaining and supporting a high-quality, well-trained teacher workforce. These findings are consistent with the practices identified as essential to quality pre-K in New America’s Indispensables for Quality Pre-K project (in partnership with the Alliance for Early Success), that focus on the quality of teaching based on teacher preparation and development, interactions with students, and ability to translate curricula into meaningful instruction.

Each program - Acelero Learning, Community Action Program of Tulsa (CAP Tulsa), Educare Miami-Dade, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), and Utah Community Action (UCA) - offers a rich network of tools, resources, supports, and professional development to ensure instruction is delivered consistently and with quality across all classrooms, explain the authors. Curricula, always customized, supplemented, or created from scratch, are utilized differently in every classroom, because teachers are given the autonomy to choose how to teach and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the individual children within their classrooms. Teachers, however, are never without support. There is a strong professional development component in each program, centered upon individualized coaching. Teachers receive regular observations and their student data are evaluated in order to identify areas of strength and need for growth, and set specific goals for ongoing improvement.

Each exemplar looks beyond degree and safety requirements when hiring new staff, ensuring teachers have the skills required to successfully support student learning and are a good fit for the mission and culture of the program. Additionally, competitive salaries, quality working conditions, and opportunities for advancement help them recruit top candidates in the field.

Recognizing the value of data to drive program improvement, each exemplar collects and analyzes data on teaching effectiveness. Four exemplar programs have a staff member dedicated to data analysis and the fifth contracts with an academic researcher. These individuals analyze data collected from teacher evaluations and use information about program design and practices, such as the effects of specific curricula on student achievement, to help measure overall program effectiveness. Staff at all levels jointly review and evaluate the findings to make decisions about overall program improvement.

What these programs are doing is working - children are making substantial learning gains. And other individual Head Start and early childhood programs can certainly learn from their successes. But, there is still room for improvement. Every program cited three central areas of challenge: (1) supporting English and home language development for dual language learners; (2) preventing, responding to, and mitigating the impacts of challenging behaviors in early childhood classrooms; (3) and improving teacher retention.

Some unique program characteristics have enabled the exemplars’ rise to the top. Most notably, they access several funding streams outside of the traditional avenues. The authors explain that these additional dollars allow programs to provide higher levels of compensation for teachers, develop internal cycles of data-informed continuous quality improvement, and integrate instructional models. Because of the large size of the exemplars - most serving more than 1,000 students across multiple sites, they are better equipped to use the resources to achieve efficiencies of scale and invest in central capacity and supports.

Head Start’s combination of national reach and local variation creates a powerful laboratory for innovation, the authors explain. By better understanding the factors that contribute to the successes of the Head Start exemplars, other programs can use them to inform their own efforts to improve practices. Additionally, finding ways to make resources, such as curricula, shareable across settings and enabling cross-site learning could help lead to greater success for more Head Start programs.

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Related Topics
Head Start