Early Childhood Education

Good Start, Grow Smart


Good Start, Grow Smart is a new reform initiative to improve low-income Head Start children’s academic readiness for school, as well as to improve accountability and quality in Head Start, and preschool education more generally. Under the George W. Bush administration, new reforms (most notably known as No Child Left Behind [NCLB]) have been directed at improving educational achievement at the elementary and secondary levels of schooling. Good Start, Grow Smart is aligned with the No Child Left Behind initiative but with a focus on low-income 34 year olds enrolled in Head Start. Announced by the Bush administration in 2002 (White House, 2002), Good Start, Grow Smart focuses on greater accountability, increased qualifications of teachers, and more frequent assessment of four-year-old children on academic readiness outcomes.

Head Start is the longest lasting social program remaining from the 1960s Kennedy-Johnson era program. After the implementation of NCLB, the Bush administration (White House, 2002) announced that it would begin a new reform at the preschool level, aimed at the federally funded Head Start program. Good Start, Grow Smart is aligned with the NCLB in that it focuses on greater accountability, increased qualifications of teachers, and more frequent assessment of four-year-old children on academic readiness outcomes.


The Purposes of Good Start, Grow Smart

President Bush announced the Good Start, Grow Smart initiative at the White House in 2002. He emphasized the following key aim of the reform:

• To continue Head Start’s emphasis on the “whole child” by focusing on health, social, emotional, cognitive, language, and academic development (White House, 2002).

In addition, the Good Start, Grow Smart initiative addresses the following three major areas (White House, 2002, p. 1):

• Strengthening Head Start: Through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Administration will develop a new accountability system for Head Start to ensure that every Head Start center assesses standards of learning in early literacy, language, and numeracy skills.

• HHS will also implement a national training program with the goal of training the nearly 50,000 Head Start teachers in early literacy teaching techniques.

• Partnering with States to Improve Early Childhood Education: The Administration proposes a stronger Federal-State partnership in the delivery of quality early childhood programs, Key Debates related to Good Start, Grow Smart Reforms from 2002-2006.


Access and Funding

Good Start, Grow Smart envisioned adding funds to Head Start for teacher training, enhancing teacher salaries, and to pay for assessments and new accountability measures. But the amount of funding provided, given social cuts to the federal budget over the past four years, has resulted in a slight reduction in number of children funded, and the funding of programs more generally. In addition, while Good Start, Grow Smart focused on improving the credentials or “quality” of its teachers and programs by having 50 percent of its teachers with bachelors degrees in education or early education, 2006 legislative records suggest this aim may be reduced or eliminated as a mandate, as there is too little funding available federally to adequately increase teacher salaries as envisioned (National Head Start Association, 2006).


Assessment and Accountability

Since 2002, a new form of “managerialism” in welfare state discourses ( Clarke- and Newman, 1997) appears to be leading toward a renewed emphasis on a variety of managerial and accountability standards in Head Start, with one child development researcher even suggesting that Head Start could be likened to a factory where efficiency and accountability standards must be met. These shifts have resulted in multiple new developments as part of Good Start, Grow Smart reforms and suggested reforms. These include the following:

• Renewed emphasis on academic readiness, especially in early literacy and numeracy outcomes, with new summative or high stakes assessments of child outcomes.

• Renewed emphasis on accountability and management standards, with more professional management and program accountability assessments.

• Recompetition for Head Start contracts based on determination of “noncompliance.”

• New faith-based hiring initiatives.

• New emphases on paternal, as well as maternal involvement programs.

• New ways to collaborate or form partnerships with state-based preschool (prekindergarten) initiatives.


New Outcomes. Head Start, from its inception, was organized around comprehensive outcomes related to health and child development, child care, and educational programming. The Good Start, Grow Smart reform focuses more narrowly on preacademic readiness skills in literacy and numeracy. These shifts follow the lead of No Child Left Behind, and the scientific reports that suggest young children are “eager to learn” (National Research Council, 2001), and that reading failures can be prevented by earlier attention to a rich literacy-oriented curriculum (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998). There is significant debate about a too narrow curriculum for Head Start, as well as an inappropriate interpretation of what an effective early literacy and numeracy curriculum should be for young children, although there is support in the Head Start and early childhood education community for additional emphases in curriculum related to appropriate early literacy and numeracy activities, and developmentally appropriate assessments (Zigler and Styfco, 2004).


Assessments. As suggested above, there is still great debate about how much emphasis should be placed on early literacy and numeracy, their definition, and how to teach these skills in a developmentally appropriate way to the nation’s children (Delpit, 1995; National Research Council, 2001; Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998). The new national assessment of Head Start four year olds first implemented in the Fall of 2003 as part of the Good Start, Grow Smart reform is called the National Reporting System or NRS. It is oriented toward testing early academics, especially language comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, early letter and number recognition, phonetic awareness, word recognition, and early numeracy skills. Since its first national implementation, the NRS has been administered twice a year in English to all children, and in Spanish and then English to children whose primary language is Spanish. The test has been criticized as an inappropriate high stakes assessment of young children that is unreliable as well as lacking in validity, particularly for children whose first language is Spanish (GAO, 2005; Meisels and Atkins-Burnett, 2004). It has also been judged to be culturally biased (GAO, 2005; Meisels and Atkins-Burnett, 2004). The 2005 GAO report found that teachers reported that the Head Start curriculum was beginning to change to a more narrow range of academic skills, and that some were “teaching to the test.” This refocusing of the curriculum toward more academic readiness outcomes was a primary goal of the 2002 Good Start, Grow Smart reform (White House, 2002). The GAO report (2005) recommended revising the NRS to increase reliability and validity for all children, and adding a socioemotional outcomes assessment. Despite continuing debate, in 2006, new revisions and an additional socioemotional assessment are being piloted for addition to the NRS.


Accountability and Management. The legislative proposals in Good Start, Grow Smart have shifted oversight from advisory and/or parent councils for making important policy decisions about their own children’s programs (hiring/firing, curriculum orientation) to management councils that would implement accountability performance standards. These would include determination of noncompliance, fraud, and when grantees should be involved in recompetition of federal funds and grantee status. Head Start grantees throughout the United States have accepted the need for oversight and accountability standards throughout the history of Head Start, but are concerned about the loss of powers by parent-community councils, as well as the specter of being judged noncompliant. There is concern that the recompetition of federal Head Start grants might result in greater state or private control of Head Start funds, and potentially greater inequalities across the states compared to the current federally guided and managed program (Clarke and Newman, 1997).


Increased Encouragement of “Faith-based" Hiring and Curricular Practices. While Head Start has frequently had programs in religious-sponsored building sites over its history, Good Start, Grow Smart proposes an increase in federal funding for private faith-based contractors, with an allowance that these contractors can hire and fire employees based on religious background. Some suggest that the new proposed provisions use public funding to allow for discriminatory hiring practices based on religion, and also would allow different Head Start community-based grantees to fire long-term employees, even those highly credentialed, in favor of assistant and full-time staff that conform to the religious beliefs of the sponsoring program.


New Emphases on Paternal as well as Maternal Involvement Programs. Definitions of marriage and family, as well as support for nuclear two parent families, have been an important part of recent welfare legislation since the 1990s, and have been stressed under the Bush administration reforms related to a variety of policy initiatives. There has been greater support for the traditions of marriage, family, and father-as well as mother-support programs. Good Start, Grow Smart reforms and proposed legislation encourage marriage over single parenthood, and also provide the framework for new fatherhood programs to educate fathers about their responsibilities and possibilities for involvement with their preschool-age children through Head Start programs. Although this has been implicit in Head Start since its inception, and fathers and other relatives have often been involved in their children’s education and in Head Start programs, the Good Start, Grow Smart reforms provide new funding and policy recommendations aimed at father involvement, education, and support. Because these initiatives are also part of a broad new welfare policy aimed at enhancing maternal employment outside the household, increased emphasis on marriage, and maternal/father individual responsibility, the new reforms in Good Start, Grow Smart are one part of a larger debate related to changing discourses about family and marriage, personal responsibility, and employment (Bloch et al., 2003).


Increased Collaboration and Partnership with the States. Good Start, Grow Smart (White House, 2002) encouraged partnerships with states enabling more efficient use of Head Start funds in combination with funds for child-care and early childhood programs at the state level. Good Start, Grow Smart proposes more integrated partnerships that would use federal, state, and local funds and programming more effectively and efficiently to enhance the ability of states and localities to provide 4-K programs for children “at risk” as well as to provide more full-day child-care services for children of low-income single mothers who must find employment under the new welfare-to-work regimes. Despite the efforts of the Bush Administration to devolve federal Head Start funding to the states, two specific attempts to experiment with state block grants to selected experimental states have failed to be approved by Congress after resistance from Head Start lobbyists, parents, and key legislators. The current emphasis on integration and collaboration of Head Start funds with other state and local funds is aimed at making a better “system” of early education and child care, though no new funding is provided (Zigler and Styfco, 2004; National Head Start Association, 2006). See also Families; Fathers.

Further Readings: Bloch, M. N., K. Holmlund, I. Moqvist, and T. S. Popkewitz, eds. (2003). Governing children, families, and education: Restructuring the welfare state. New York: Palgrave Press; Clarke, J., and J. Newman (1997). The managerial state: Power, politics and ideology in the remaking of social welfare. London: Sage Publications; Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (2005). S. B. 1107-Full committee report on Head Start improvement for school readiness act of 2005. Available online at http://www.whsaonline.org/senatecommitteereport.pdf; Delpit, L. (1995). Other peoples’ children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press; Government Accountability Office (May, 2005). Head Start: Further Development Could Allow New Test to Be Used for Decision-Making. Report 05-343. Washington, DC: U.S. Accountability Office; Meisels, S., and S. Atkins-Burnett (2004). The Head Start national reporting system: A critique. Young Children 59(1), 64-66; National Head Start Association (2006). Special report: The Bush administration’s fiscal year 2007 budget proposal would slash Head Start and Early Head Start program enrollment. Available online at http://www.nhsa.org/download/advocacy/PresidentFY2007Budget.pdf; National Research Council (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Snow, C. E., M. S. Burns, and P. Griffin, eds. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available online at http://books.nap.edu/html/prdyc/; White House (2002). Good Start, Grow Smart: The Bush administration’s early childhood initiative. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/earlychildhood/earlychildhood.pdf; Zigler, E., and S. J. Styfco, eds. (2004). The Head Start debates. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.

Marianne Bloch and Ko Eun Kim