Monday evening, for the first time, the Romney campaign offered some much-needed clarification on what Governor Romney would or wouldn’t do for early learning if he were elected president: Speaking at a mock debate hosted by the Columbia Teachers College, Phil Handy, a co-chair of Romney's Education Policy Advisory Group, said that Romney would make Head Start more of an educational program, and criticized the current programm, saying it functions “more as a social experience.”
His statement is likely an interpretation of recent studies on what gains Head Start kids do and don’t make when in the program. Currently, while many of the gains of Head Start have been shown to “fade out” by third grade, research suggests that thecognitive and social-emotional gains children make in high-quality pre-K settings could be replicated in Head Start.
But calling Head Start a “social experience” is both patronizing and off-target. Head Start is in need of improvement, which the Obama administration is pursuing through its recompetition program. But what does Handy mean by “educational”? Is he suggesting the program focus more on academic skills like pre-reading and math? The Obama Administration’s Head Start reforms will soon incorporate the Classroom Assessment and Scoring System, also known as CLASS, to augment the administration’s evaluations of Head Start providers. That tool, which is already employed by Head Start programs to figure out which teachers need additional training, should help boost teacher quality and make the program better at preparing kids for school. But it’s unclear whether Handy or Romney are aware of these reforms, and whether their stress on academics would translate into classroom instruction that is developmentally appropriate for young children—not to mention the fact that the social-emotional gains children are making in Head Start are crucial.