The Accountability Revolution Comes to Head Start

Since 2011, more than 350 Head Start providers have had to compete for federal grant money. That’s a huge change.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius read the Dr. Seuss book 'Green Eggs and Ham' to students enrolled in a Head Start program at Rolling Terrace Elementary School March 1, 2013 in Takoma Park, Maryland.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
April 23, 2014, 6:13 a.m.

BAL­TIMORE — St. Jerome’s Head Start, a plain build­ing in a gentri­fy­ing Bal­timore neigh­bor­hood, looks as sol­id and un­chan­ging as a block of con­crete. It’s an un­likely set­ting for a big shift in how early-child­hood edu­ca­tion is provided. But here and across the city, Head Start teach­ers are grap­pling with new rules for edu­cat­ing chil­dren. Staffers are un­der pres­sure to make sure pro­gram fin­ances are air­tight. And cen­ters are wait­ing to hear the fi­nal de­tails of a plan to change the way early-child­hood ser­vices are de­livered city­wide.

Head Start, the fed­er­ally fun­ded preschool pro­gram for low-in­come chil­dren, has ex­per­i­enced more change in the past three years than in the pre­vi­ous 40. After years of de­bate about the pro­gram’s qual­ity and value, there’s an ac­count­ab­il­ity re­volu­tion com­ing to preschool.

Op­er­at­ing un­der au­thor­ity from a 2007 law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has star­ted re­quir­ing Head Start pro­viders that per­form poorly on fed­er­al audits to com­pete against oth­er loc­al pro­viders — and win — to keep their grants for the next five years. If all goes ac­cord­ing to plan, by the end of 2014 the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will have re­viewed every Head Start pro­gram un­der new per­form­ance cri­ter­ia. So far, more than 350 of some 1,700 Head Start grant re­cip­i­ents have been forced to com­pete for their fund­ing, and many more will be re­quired to do so in the years ahead.

For Head Start pro­grams that have faced barely any re­quire­ments to demon­strate their ef­fect­ive­ness, this counts as a re­volu­tion. “It has had a huge im­pact on every single pro­gram in Mary­land. They really com­pletely re­designed the way pro­grams have to look at the way they are op­er­at­ing,” says Linda Zang, the Mary­land State De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion of­fi­cial in charge of col­lab­or­at­ing with Head Start. It seems like every year at least one grantee in the state has been re­quired to com­pete for fund­ing, Zang says. More im­port­ant, the threat of com­pet­i­tion is push­ing teach­ers across the state to be­come bet­ter edu­cat­ors.

Head Start has al­ways in­spired high ex­pect­a­tions. “We set out to make cer­tain that poverty’s chil­dren would not be forever­more poverty’s cap­tives,” Pres­id­ent John­son said when he an­nounced the cre­ation of the pro­gram, in 1965. John­son en­vi­sioned a net­work of neigh­bor­hood or­gan­iz­a­tions that would edu­cate young chil­dren, en­sure that chil­dren get med­ic­al care, and teach par­ents about child de­vel­op­ment.

Today, the Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies in the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment funds a sprawl­ing net­work of about 1,600 loc­al gov­ern­ments, school sys­tems, and private or­gan­iz­a­tions, many of which del­eg­ate fund­ing rather than op­er­at­ing pro­grams them­selves (St. Jerome’s is one of the city of Bal­timore’s 11 del­eg­ate or­gan­iz­a­tions). Pro­viders must abide by some 2,400 fed­er­al stand­ards that dic­tate everything from how toi­lets are cleaned to the size of fa­cil­it­ies. There’s also an ad­di­tion­al, smal­ler pro­gram called Early Head Start that serves preg­nant wo­men and tod­dlers.

Head Start served about 8 per­cent of Amer­ic­an 3-year olds and 11 per­cent of 4-year olds in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Early Edu­ca­tion Re­search at Rut­gers Uni­versity. Fam­il­ies must be liv­ing be­low the poverty line, or hov­er­ing just above it, to ap­ply for a spot in a pro­gram. Last year, 42 per­cent of all chil­dren served were white, 29 per­cent were Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and 37 per­cent were Latino. In Bal­timore, al­most two-thirds of Head Start par­ents hold a high school dip­loma or less.

Fed­er­al law­makers in­creas­ingly want to see proof that Head Start pre­pares low-in­come chil­dren for kinder­garten. By age 5, af­flu­ent chil­dren tend to show great­er cog­nit­ive de­vel­op­ment than their low-in­come peers, mostly be­cause af­flu­ent, well-edu­cated par­ents have more con­ver­sa­tions with their ba­bies and use longer words when they do. Pres­id­ent Obama of­ten points to re­search show­ing low-in­come chil­dren re­ceive life­time be­ne­fits from at­tend­ing a high-qual­ity preschool pro­gram, in­clud­ing bet­ter aca­dem­ic per­form­ance all the way through high school.

But many Head Start and state-run pre­kinder­garten pro­grams aren’t high qual­ity. Na­tion­al stud­ies of pub­lic pre-K pro­grams have found that chil­dren spend most of their time play­ing, eat­ing, and wait­ing around, and that in­struc­tion­al qual­ity is gen­er­ally low. A fed­er­al im­pact study, re­leased in 2012, found that while Head Start chil­dren ex­per­i­ence ini­tial gains in health, lan­guage, and read­ing skills, those gains usu­ally dis­ap­pear by third grade. House Re­pub­lic­ans use that study to ar­gue that Head Start is a fail­ure and not worth the $8.6 bil­lion tax­pay­ers will spend on the pro­gram this year.

His­tor­ic­ally, Head Start grants were awar­ded con­tinu­ously, mean­ing that bar­ring a ma­jor vi­ol­a­tion of fed­er­al stand­ards, pro­viders could ex­pect to keep re­ceiv­ing money year after year. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and a Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Con­gress used the 2007 reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Head Start Act to bring more com­pet­i­tion to the pro­gram and raise the stakes of fed­er­al mon­it­or­ing.

Even­tu­ally, the sys­tem will work like this: All Head Start grants will be five years long. Pro­viders will re­quest re­newed fund­ing at some point be­fore the fifth year of their grant. If they have met cer­tain per­form­ance cri­ter­ia while hold­ing the grant, fund­ing will be re­newed. If not, they’ll have to com­pete to main­tain their fund­ing.

It took un­til Decem­ber 2011 to fi­nal­ize the rules for this pro­cess, and the new sys­tem is still be­ing im­ple­men­ted. At least in the­ory, by the end of this year, HHS will have re­viewed data on every Head Start pro­vider and transitioned every pro­vider to a five-year grant, either through re­new­ing funds or sub­ject­ing it to com­pet­i­tion.

“Many of the grantees have been fun­ded since the ‘60s and ‘70s, and there wer­en’t a lot of op­por­tun­it­ies for new ap­proaches in­to the pro­grams,” says Roberto Rodrig­uez, Pres­id­ent Obama’s White House edu­ca­tion ad­viser. “We have said, ‘If you are a grantee that does not meas­ure up, you will face an open com­pet­i­tion.’ “

HHS has only re­leased the res­ults of the first round of com­pet­i­tion, which took place in 2012. The res­ults of the 2013 round will be an­nounced later this year, and pro­viders have already been no­ti­fied if they’ll have to com­pete in 2014. Eighty of the 125 pro­viders that com­peted in 2012 kept their grants, and the rest lost either part of all of their fund­ing to an­oth­er or­gan­iz­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to HHS.

In their as­sess­ments, Head Start pro­viders must now meet sev­en per­form­ance cri­ter­ia. Five are ad­min­is­trat­ive — things such as hav­ing the right li­cens­ing, and be­ing fin­an­cially solvent. Pro­viders must also set goals for pre­par­ing chil­dren for kinder­garten, and take steps to achieve them. The last and most im­port­ant change is a re­quire­ment that pro­grams meet min­im­um thresholds on the Classroom As­sess­ment Scor­ing Sys­tem, a privately de­veloped tool that as­sesses how teach­ers and staff in­ter­act with chil­dren.

CLASS doesn’t meas­ure learn­ing out­comes, per se, but high scores are cor­rel­ated with bet­ter learn­ing. “It’s been used in a lot of re­search and has been val­id­ated — mean­ing that those who have de­veloped this tool have found in nu­mer­ous re­search stud­ies that when teach­ers in­ter­act in these rich­er ways with chil­dren, that leads to bet­ter out­comes,” says Lisa Guern­sey, dir­ect­or of the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion’s Early Learn­ing Ini­ti­at­ive.

Mon­it­ors use the CLASS tool to rate pro­grams in three areas: emo­tion­al sup­port, classroom or­gan­iz­a­tion, and in­struc­tion­al sup­port. Teach­ers get high scores for in­struc­tion if they seize on teach­able mo­ments all day long: ask­ing chil­dren ques­tions, re­spond­ing with more than one-word an­swers, and in­tro­du­cing new vocab­u­lary words even in cas­u­al con­ver­sa­tion.

To re­ceive fund­ing re­newed without com­pet­i­tion, pro­viders must sur­pass min­im­um scores set by HHS set for all three areas. They also must avoid fall­ing in­to the bot­tom 10 per­cent of CLASS scores for Head Start pro­grams na­tion­ally. CLASS scores wer­en’t used to identi­fy low-per­form­ing pro­grams in the first round of com­pet­i­tion; in­stead, pro­viders were asked to com­pete if they had ad­min­is­trat­ive prob­lems noted dur­ing earli­er fed­er­al re­views. But in the second round, about 40 per­cent of grantees re­quired to com­pete for fund­ing had to do so at least partly be­cause of low CLASS scores, says Sara Mead of Bell­weth­er Edu­ca­tion Part­ners, a non­profit con­sultancy.

Mov­ing for­ward, ex­perts say low CLASS scores will likely be the main reas­on pro­grams are forced to com­pete for fund­ing. Of 388 Head Start pro­viders the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment as­sessed with the CLASS tool in 2012, the av­er­age in­struc­tion­al sup­port score was a 2.98 out of a pos­sible 7; 2 is the min­im­um ac­cept­able score set by HHS. Of 359 pro­viders as­sessed in 2013, the av­er­age in­struc­tion­al score was 2.72.

It’s not yet clear wheth­er the com­pet­it­ive pro­cess will en­cour­age new or­gan­iz­a­tions to chal­lenge ex­ist­ing pro­viders for Head Start fund­ing. John Hol­land, a Head Start teach­er and a Ph.D. re­search­er, cal­cu­lated that in 2012 most of the re­as­signed money went to ex­ist­ing Head Start pro­viders. “From a kids-eye per­spect­ive, there may not have been a lot of change,” says Mead. “Kids ended up in the same set­tings, it’s just that the money flows slightly dif­fer­ently.”

In Mary­land, the first round of com­pet­i­tion caused one non­profit in the south­ern part of the state to lose two of its three grants to loc­al pub­lic school dis­tricts. The city of Bal­timore, re­quired to com­pete be­cause of a prob­lem with in­tern­al mon­it­or­ing of fin­ances, was asked to ap­ply for a new type of grant. To­geth­er with four com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions, the city ap­plied and won pre­lim­in­ary ap­prov­al for a $29 mil­lion ef­fort to co­ordin­ate early-child­hood edu­ca­tion city­wide.

Gain­ing a Head Start grant al­lowed the Cal­vert County school dis­trict to ex­pand its preschool ser­vices. “The 4-year-old chil­dren have the op­por­tun­ity to go to pre­kinder­garten half-day and Head Start half-day, to give them a whole day pro­gram,” says Cheryl Yates, su­per­visor of early-child­hood and adult edu­ca­tion for the dis­trict. Chil­dren were pre­vi­ously able to at­tend pub­lic school pre-K half-day and Head Start half-day, but not usu­ally in the same loc­a­tion.

If Bal­timore’s plan is ap­proved, the city’s pub­lic school pre-K pro­grams will ex­pand to serve 4-year olds who would oth­er­wise have gone to Head Start. Head Start will also be­come a full-day, full-year pro­gram for 3-year olds, and Early Head Start ser­vices will co­ordin­ate with a fed­er­ally fun­ded home vis­it­ing pro­gram for preg­nant wo­men.

Or­gan­iz­a­tions in­volved in Bal­timore’s plan are un­der a leg­al or­der not to talk about the de­tails un­til they are fi­nal­ized. St. Jerome’s, usu­ally open to giv­ing tours of its fa­cil­it­ies, de­clined to let Na­tion­al Journ­al see the in­side of a classroom, let alone speak to teach­ers and staff mem­bers.

“As a res­ult of the trig­gers for re­com­pet­i­tion, it’s changed how Head Start really looks at their op­er­a­tions,” says Shan­non Bur­roughs-Camp­bell, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Bal­timore City Head Start. “The use of CLASS … throughout classes and throughout pro­grams — to make sure that you’re meet­ing at least the ba­sic min­im­um level that would not trig­ger re­com­pet­i­tion — is crit­ic­al.”

It’s not just the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion that’s mov­ing to bring more ac­count­ab­il­ity to preschool and to provide the kind of edu­ca­tion to dis­ad­vant­aged chil­dren that can po­ten­tially shrink learn­ing dis­par­it­ies. “As states and gov­ern­ments at all levels in­vest more money in pre-K, you’re go­ing to see more de­sire for some kind of meas­ure­ment,” Mead says. The in­creased fed­er­al scru­tiny of Head Start pro­grams now un­fold­ing may be only the first tremors of much lar­ger changes ahead as more preschool pro­grams face that simple but power­ful ques­tion.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle mis­stated John Hol­land’s job title.

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