Are You a Presidential Candidate With a Child Care Proposal? Pay Attention.

As candidates put forward their visions for 2020, potential Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren has chosen to make childcare a centerpiece of her campaign to rebuild the middle class. Warren’s announcement builds on recent arguments that child care is a vehicle to increase women’s workforce participation and, therefore, economic growth. Warren’s proposal has since stimulated a good deal of coverage and debate about both the merits of her plan and the value of early childhood education more generally.

One overlooked factor in this debate is the debt that Warren’s plan owes to Head Start, which Warren acknowledges in the unveiling of the plan. Head Start, the country’s largest pre-K program, is a federally funded child development program that supports local early childhood programs to provide early learning, family engagement, and comprehensive supports for nearly one million preschoolers in poverty and their families every year.

Warren is smart to seize on Head Start as a model. Research shows that Head Start students overall make meaningful gains in school readiness during their time in Head Start, and that the quality of Head Start programs is better than many other early childhood settings. But other research shows that the quality of Head Start programs varies widely, with some programs producing much bigger school readiness gains than others.

My Bellwether colleague Sara Mead and I have spent the last three years studying five of the highest performing Head Start programs in the country, programs that have produced significant learning gains for the children they serve. We examined every aspect of these programs in an effort to understand what practices led to their effectiveness and how, as a field, we can leverage their successes to improve the quality of all early childhood programs — Head Start and otherwise.

After closely analyzing these programs’ practices, we produced a series of publications called “Leading by Exemplar,” released today. This research is the first of its kind to do such an in-depth study of program practices. It offers lessons for other Head Start programs and for policymakers — including Warren — who want to expand access to quality learning in the early childhood world.

So what is the “secret sauce” that contributes to these programs’ successes? Three practices stand out:

Deep value of, investment in, and autonomy for teachers

These early childhood programs don’t just claim to value teachers, they actually put resources behind those claims. Teachers are seen as the primary driver of program quality and are treated as such: They go through a rigorous selection process, are compensated better than in other early childhood programs, and have clear advancement opportunities and professional working conditions. The most successful programs provide teachers with the resources and materials that they need to be effective in the classroom, and hold teachers accountable for their performance. But, in turn, teachers have autonomy around how to teach the curriculum and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of children within their classrooms.

Commitment to data-informed continuous improvement

Early childhood programs are often under-resourced, particularly those that serve the highest need children — as Head Start programs do. So it can be difficult to justify dedicating valuable resources to collecting and analyzing data. But the best programs do. They authentically and constantly use data to improve their practices and design. Teachers use data to improve their instruction and build skills; staff use data to assess the effectiveness of program components and decide if the components should be maintained, evolved, or dropped; and leadership use data to assess the program’s overall effectiveness and determine if, and how well, they are meeting their overall goal of serving children and families. These programs have intentionally created a culture where data are never used to punish people — instead, they are a tool for improvement and growth at every level of the organization.

Family engagement tightly linked to children’s learning

Like all Head Start providers, these five programs implement a two-generation approach that strives to improve long-term outcomes for children by fostering families’ economic wellbeing and ability to support their children’s learning. Each program’s practices vary based on its philosophy and the population it serves, but all tightly link children’s learning with how they engage parents and families. They form strong relationships, regularly discuss information on children’s progress, and develop a shared sense of responsibility and investment. As a result, these programs not only improve their ability to serve children today, but build parents’ capacity to advocate for their children throughout their educational experience.

To be clear, Sen. Warren’s proposal differs from Head Start in key ways. Higher income families would be eligible to participate, though for a fee, and states are mentioned as a potential operator, whereas Head Start only allows local early childhood providers. Campaign proposals don’t typically get into the details of program design and implementation, but our research suggests this is crucial for success. Any candidate seeking to capitalize on the potential of high-quality early childhood education should build on the successes of Head Start and learn from its challenges, regardless of the specific model they propose.