How Head Start is Leading Innovation for Early Childhood Education

The man often recognized as the “Father of Head Start,” Dr. Edward Zigler of Yale University, believed from the beginning that Head Start must not just keep up with current trends, but actually introduce new and bold ideas into the broader early childhood education community.


He wrote, “The notion of Head Start as a national laboratory also fit my philosophy. I have always thought of Head Start not as a static program, but as an evolving concept. Head Start should be a model of the very best and most innovative in child and family services.”


For 53 years, the Head Start community has been guided by that vision.


Driven by the core belief that all children deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential and succeed in life, Head Start teachers, staff, and parents all work together under the mutual understanding that innovating means they must, along with their children, always be learning.


That relentless drive to learn and improve means the best new evidence-based practices and ideas are continuously synthesized into the comprehensive, multigenerational Head Start model. The results speak for themselves. Recent research from institutions such as Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution has reaffirmed Head Start’s life-changing impact for America’s most vulnerable children and their families.


Collaborating across disciplines is an essential part of Head Start’s success with innovating, so we are thrilled to have been a part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s forum, “Digital Empowers: Accelerating Innovation for Business and Social Good.” Presenting at the event was Michael Patterson, chief information officer and co-founder of Head Start grantee Arkansas Early Learning, Inc., and Tim Oppenheim, systems administrator for the program.


Tim and Michael were invited to present to the forum’s participants their latest innovation - the Elevated Classroom. The challenge they seek to solve? Head Start teachers are spending too much time filling out paperwork and completing other time-consuming but necessary administrative tasks. These duties consume an average of 34 days of instructional time per classroom per year, and cost over $156 million in Head Start teacher time nationwide. At the same time, the unique needs of Head Start children mean they require additional time and encouragement from their teachers in order to maintain their developmental progress with their more advantaged peers.


At Arkansas Early Learning, Tim and Michael are innovating to help address this issue. Their concept, Elevated Classroom, uses cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition software to enable teachers to use a voice method to complete routine administrative tasks. By streamlining administrative processes for Head Start programs, Elevated Classroom helps teachers focus on their most valuable efforts: the face-to-face interactions with children that are key to children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.


Innovations like Elevated Classroom are being accelerated by the HeadStarter Network, a think-and-action network that supports, incubates, and accelerates innovation driven by early learning practitioners. The HeadStarter Network is a convenient platform for facilitating interdisciplinary initiatives—including collaborations, research, experiments, products, services, and ventures—between Network members to impact the future of early learning.


Next up for the HeadStarter Network is the third annual Early Childhood Innovation Summit in July, a national conference solely dedicated to innovation, with practitioners from across the nation coming together to catalyze ideas, processes, and technologies to increase quality in early childhood development and education.


One HeadStarter Network initiative that is already taking flight is a Head Start data-use optimization project. Head Start believes that data-informed decision making will strengthen outcomes and ultimately take our programming to the next level in providing high quality curricula and services for America’s most vulnerable children and families. Earlier this week, an idea hatched at NHSA’s 2017 Data Design Huddle, was selected by Gary Community Investments as an Early Childhood Innovation Prize “Top Idea.” One of only 15 winners, this collaboration with the impact-driven data technology company BrightHive was chosen from more than 570 ideas submitted from innovators in 100 countries through OpenIDEO’s prize platform. The goal of this community-driven project is to increase local Head Start programs’ ability to use data to measure and improve quality, brainstorm smarter ways to fix problems, and achieve better results.


Our belief that every child deserves the opportunity to succeed is what drives the Head Start community, but our commitment to innovation—to always be learning—is what turns our boldest ideas into reality.