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Photo Credit: Getty Images

February 7, 2017

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Americans are more skeptical than ever before of federal-level government action, a result of years of declining public approval of Congress and divisive partisan politics. In the House of Representatives, we have Speaker Paul Ryan saying “a better way” is to dismantle existing government interventions which “limit [Americans’] ability to get ahead.” In the domain of federal education law, we have the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which moved control back to the states. We also have researchers and policy wonks deeming one of President Barack Obama’s signature education programs — School Improvement Grants — an abysmal failure (even though we can’t decisively say whether the program worked or not).
But it hasn’t always been this way — and we shouldn’t always be this skeptical of making broad changes using federal-level action. In fact, we are coming up on the 10-year anniversary of a federal-level policy change that did exactly what it set out to do.
Ten years ago, a bipartisan coalition in Congress passed legislation to improve Head Start, the early childhood education program that serves our country’s poorest children. The law included a mandate that required 50 percent of classroom teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education by 2013. The goal of this requirement was to increase teacher quality and provide children in Head Start with the most developmentally appropriate learning experiences. Research at the time suggested that employing teachers with higher levels of educational attainment was the most impactful way to improve children’s readiness for school.
What have we learned 10 years later? As detailed in this new report from Bellwether Education Partners, Head Start more than met the mandate, achieving the 50 percent goal for classroom teachers with bachelor’s degrees a full two years ahead of schedule. As of 2015, three quarters of all Head Start lead teachers had a bachelor’s or advanced degree.
It is rare for a federal law to create such dramatic change — especially across 1,600-plus local grantees — in such a short period of time. And this was achieved without additional dedicated funding to meet new mandates.
This achievement is even more impressive considering that Congress mandated bachelor’s degrees without an accompanying strategy for cultivating higher-education programs to help Head Start teachers earn them. At the time Congress passed the mandate, only 30 percent of institutions of higher education even offered an early childhood teacher preparation program — and the majority of these offered only associate’s degrees. Yet Head Start teachers found ways to earn their degrees.
Did increasing the percentage of Head Start teachers with bachelor’s degrees improve the quality of teaching in Head Start classrooms? That’s harder to measure. On the one hand, there is evidence the quality of teaching in Head Start classrooms has improved since the 2007 reauthorization. Data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey, which collects information on student and teacher demographics, classroom quality and children’s learning from a national sample of Head Start classrooms, show statistically significant improvements in the quality of instruction over the past decade. The study attributes a portion of this gain to the increase in teachers with bachelor’s degrees. It’s also clear that other factors such as training on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) and mentoring played a role in this improvement.
While the bachelor’s degree mandate raised Head Start teacher credentials, more work is required to strengthen the Head Start workforce and the broader early childhood profession. What early childhood teachers truly need: competitive compensation, high-quality early childhood educator preparation programs, and policymakers who consider how the broader early childhood landscape and K-12 teacher workforce trends affect the employment market for Head Start teachers.
The success of the Head Start bachelor’s degree mandate, and the general improvements in Head Start over the past 10 years, illustrate that well-conceived federal policies have the ability to make meaningful improvements in education and social services. Head Start’s unique federal-to-local nature, and its compliance-driven history, may have made improving the program easier. But policymakers in other areas can learn from the experience with Head Start to implement federal policies that meaningfully improve the lives of children across the country.