January 12, 2016

Moneyball for Head Start: Using Data, Evidence, and Evaluation to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families

By Sara Mead | Ashley LiBetti Mitchel

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Head Start is a valuable program that delivers early childhood education and comprehensive services to over one million children living in poverty, helping prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. But to maximize results for Head Start children and their families, practitioners and federal policymakers must use data in new ways to support ongoing improvement in Head Start programs.

Bellwether worked with three organizations—Results for America, the National Head Start Association, and the Volcker Alliance—to develop a vision for using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve Head Start outcomes. Implementing this vision requires change at a variety of levels:  

Local grantees: 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.

Federal oversight: The Office of Head Start, within the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, needs a stronger accountability and performance measurement system. This would allows federal officials to identify and disseminate effective practices of high-performing grantees, identify and intervene in low-performing grantees, and support continuous improvement across Head Start as a whole.

Research and Evaluation: Federal policymakers and the philanthropic sector need to support research that builds the knowledge base of what works in Head Start and informs changes in program design and policies. This will require increasing funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation from less than 0.25 percent of total federal appropriations to 1 percent. Those funds should focus on research that builds knowledge to help grantees improve their quality and outcomes.

Philanthropy and the private sector: The philanthropic sector, universities and other research institutions, and the private sector should help build grantee capacity and support the development, evaluation, and dissemination of promising practices.

Fully realizing this vision will require a multi-year commitment. But federal policymakers and the philanthropic sector can take actions now to advance this vision. Specifically:

  1. Congress and the Secretary of Health and Human Services should make data-informed, continuous improvement a key priority in any legislative or regulatory policy action on Head Start.
  2. The Office of Head Start and the philanthropic sector should invest in building grantee capacity to use data to improve performance. 
  3. Federal policymakers should initiate an iterative process to develop robust, common performance indicators for Head Start and should engage researchers, the philanthropic sector, and Head Start grantees as partners in this process.
  4. Federal research agencies should work with researchers and the philanthropic sector to support the development of solid, trusted metrics of Head Start child outcomes, family outcomes, and program capacity.
  5. The Office of Head Start should provide transparent, interactive, public reporting on grantee performance.
  6. Once the Office of Head Start has developed a sufficiently robust system to measure grantee performance, it should use this system to differentiate grantee performance in order to identify high-performing grantees and learn from and scale their effective practices; support improvement in adequately performing grantees; intervene in low-performing programs; and, when necessary, defund or require them to compete for grants. 
  7. The Office of Head Start should continue, learn from, and build on efforts to make program monitoring more performance-focused and less compliance-oriented.
  8. The Secretary of Health and Human Services should implement a robust research agenda for Head Start, and Congress should increase the cap on Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation spending from $20 million to 1 percent of total appropriations.
  9. Congress should authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services to grant additional flexibility to allow cohorts of programs working with researchers to pilot new approaches for serving children and families. 

These actions can support Head Start grantees in using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve results for children and families.

Read the full report here.

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