Happy birthday, Head Start! Having begun its very first session in the summer of 1965, Head Start is celebrating 50 years of serving some of our nation’s most vulnerable children. The program has been a positive force for young children through the provision of early care and education – serving more than 30 million children over 50 years and now located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. A new brief highlights the importance of linking Head Start data to state early care and education data systems (ECE) to inform key decisions by state policymakers and guide efforts to improve early childhood program responsiveness and effectiveness.
Here at the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC), we are especially interested in data on these children. Head Start and Early Head Start programs collect a lot of data. For example, we know that 1,070,176 children were enrolled during the 2013-2014 year; 4.5 percent of those children experienced homelessness at some point during that year; and 24.7 percent of enrolled children used Spanish as their primary language at home.
Even with what we know about children in Head Start, there are challenges to taking that information and linking it to other state level data on young children and their families. In other words, it’s difficult to answer questions such as: What other state programs and services do Head Start children receive? Or Are children who participate in Head Start better prepared for school than others not attending Head Start? These questions are hard to answer because most state early childhood education programs and state K-12 data systems can’t easily link with or “talk to” Head Start data. In fact, our 2013 survey of states found that data on children in federally-funded Head Start programs are the least likely of ECE programs to be connected with other state data systems.
To better understand this challenge, we talked with Head Start and early childhood leaders in a dozen states about what specifically makes linking Head Start data to state early childhood education data so challenging, and what steps they are taking towards creating linkages. In our report, Linking Head Start Data with State Early Care and Education Coordinated Data, we found both obstacles and some accomplishments:
- There are multiple obstacles. One challenge is simply technology: individual Head Start programs across the state can each use a different data collection platform, none of which necessarily relate with the state data systems. Another reason is that Head Start data efforts use federal reporting requirements and definitions, which may differ from state requirements and definitions.
- Linkages are happening. States are most commonly linking Head Start child data with the K-12 longitudinal data systems, including Head Start program quality data in state Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, and including Head Start staff data in state Professional Registry initiatives to understand trends in child outcomes, program quality, and workforce development.
- States are building data partnerships. States identified some key steps in building data partnerships between Head Start leaders and state early care and education leaders. These include assigning unique identification numbers to children, programs, and staff (or creating a different process for matching records); creating formal data-sharing agreements with Head Start programs; and developing tools for sharing data from the multiple software platforms that manage the varying data.
As Head Start embarks on its sixth decade, close collaboration is needed with state early childhood and education offices to identify and implement expanded ways to link data systems. The benefits of this type of collaboration are many. Early childhood data can be used to understand the developmental needs of young children, inform instruction, and identify areas where children and families may need additional supports. Developing comprehensive state early childhood data systems inclusive of Head Start data enables state leaders to use the data to improve the quality of early childhood education programs and supports its workforce in fostering the healthy development of children statewide.
Carlise King, Executive Director, Early Childhood Data Collaborative