This is the second post in our seven-part series, "What's Ahead for Head Start?" Join us here for a web chat on this topic on Sept. 22, 2009 at 12:30 p.m. EDT.
More than 18 months have passed since the laws governing Head Start got their most recent make-over. The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, which President Bush signed into law in December 2007, includes several major reforms to the Head Start program, most of them designed to improve the program's quality and accountability.
What is the impact of these changes? Agencies are hiring more teachers with post-secondary degrees, as required by the law. But data does not yet exist to help us detect other signs of quality and accountability improvement. Some of the law's deadlines are still years away and some requirements went unfunded until this year. At least one initiative is already months behind schedule.
Here's a progress report on the law's impact so far:
The most immediate impact of the 2007 law was the cancellation, after only three years in use, of the National Reporting System, an assessment of children's early reading and math skills that was criticized from the get-go for being too narrow and unreliable when used with children at such young ages. The 2007 reauthorization called for the development of new measures that would be fairer and more appropriate for 3- and 4-year-olds than the hastily-designed NRS. The National Academies of Science, in response to a separate request from Congress, published guidance in 2008 on how to create fair assessments for preschoolers. The report stressed the inappropriateness of high-stakes tests for children in this age group and suggested that "extreme caution" be exercised in using assessments to evaluate programs that serve special-needs children and those in language-minority homes. Today, if a new assessment system is under development, it has not yet been made public. Most observers do not expect to see a standardized system for testing Head Start children anytime soon.
Yesterday: Competing, Collaborating and Evolving
Today: Seeking Signs of Change Since 2007
Friday: Checking Assumptions on School Readiness
Sept. 15: A Tilt Toward Literacy
Sept. 17: The Case for Comprehensive Services
Sept. 18: The Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start
Sept. 21: Future Tracks
Sept. 22: Web chat (email us your questions)
The law does require the use of trained observers to measure and rate the richness of interactions between teachers and their students. Throughout 2009, Head Start representatives have been attending training sessions for the use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a popular measurement system known as CLASS. As the use of CLASS becomes more ubiquitous, better information should follow on which Head Start programs are meeting a high bar for quality.
Slow movement on accountability
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services has missed deadlines on another provision, often referred to as the "re-compete" clause, that was designed to foster more accountability and change the way that HHS distributes its funds. In the past, once a school district or organization was designated to receive a Head Start grant, that grantee was guaranteed to receive federal dollars every year virtually in perpetuity except in cases of severe mismanagement. The 2007 law discarded that guarantee and stipulated that agencies must show evidence every five years that their programs are "comprehensive and high quality." Otherwise, the law says, they must "re-compete" for the money against other community organizations that want to provide Head Start services in their place. The Government Accountability Office praised this provision in a 2008 report for improving the ability of the Administration for Children and Families "to remove severely underperforming grantees from the program, on a regular basis."
The "re-compete" rule was not intended to be invoked right away. Congress provided time for advisers to draft a proposal that could be hashed out in public and instructed HHS to institute the rule in spring of 2010. In December 2008, an HHS committee met its deadline to submit recommendations to then Secretary Michael Leavitt, but not much has happened since. According to the law, the department was supposed to have published its proposal in the Federal Register by March 12, 2009, and to start building a new system and informing agencies of how it would work at the close of a 90-day comment period. Nearly six months after the March deadline, nothing has appeared in the Federal Register. Even if the department published a notice tomorrow, there is little chance of establishing a new renewal system by the March 12, 2010 deadline set by Congress.
It's only fair, of course, to note that HHS has been slowed by the late confirmation of its department head, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, which in turn slowed the process of filling key subcabinet positions that oversee Head Start. As of September, the Office of Head Start was still operating under an interim director.
"The bill wasn't signed until December ‘07 and then you moved into a time with a lack of leadership and lack of money," said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women's Law Center, referring to the last year of President Bush's term. "It's hard to expect that much in a year and a half."
The Office of Head Start also has been distracted by new work. It is responsible for reviewing applications from Head Start programs that want a piece of the $2.1 billion now available through the federal stimulus package. The funds will be used to nearly double Early Head Start's enrollment and allow for a smaller expansion and enhancement of Head Start.
New momentum for better collaboration
Positive signs of momentum are cropping up around the 2007 law's call for the creation of state advisory councils. These councils -- one in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories - are supposed to bring together early education stakeholders at the state and local levels so that they can eliminate redundancies and integrate services. These councils went unfunded until this year, when they received a $100 million slice of the stimulus pie.
In most cases, the new funding will provide a big boost for existing efforts at statewide collaboration; in other states it will pay for the start-up of a new council. In interviews Early Ed Watch this summer, people involved with the councils have expressed optimism for what they will finally be able to accomplish. With new levels of funding and an emphasis on high-level integration into state governments, these councils may finally have some teeth. But because the grants have not even been distributed yet, (ACF announced the competition for the funds in June) it's wise to hold applause until we see exactly how effective these councils will be.
Another intent of the 2007 law is to spur more collaboration between Head Start agencies and other early childhood or pre-K programs at the local level. But we don't yet have data to determine whether this is happening. The law requires Head Start grantees, for example, to sign memoranda of understanding with the entity or agency responsible for publicly funded preschool in their area. The agreements are supposed to foster better communication between Head Start and public schools that run preschool. But because states or localities don't always require their public preschools to sign such memos, Head Start experts say it isn't always easy to get both parties to the table, and we haven't found any nationwide source of data on how many of these agreements exist so far.
Improvements in teacher quality
The 2007 law pushes Head Start agencies to be careful who they hire. The law's first due date is a year from now -- September 10, 2010 -- when all teachers in Early Head Start must have earned a child development associate, or CDA, credential. In 2011, all Head Start teachers must have at least an associate's degree in early childhood or a related field. And in 2013, half of them must have at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood. (If their degree isn't specifically for early childhood, it must be in a related field and they must have experience teaching preschoolers.)
We don't know yet whether the requirements passed in late 2007 have had any real impact, because data from Head Start's program information reports is not yet available for the 2008-09 school year.
But we do know that even before the recent changes, Head Start agencies were already hiring more and more teachers with post-secondary degrees, a trend that dates to stricter standards put in place during the 1990s. About 46 percent of teachers have already hit that bar -- up from 40 percent in 2005, as shown here:
Opening up enrollment
Over the next few years, the law may change the composition of children in some Head Start centers. The 2007 law relaxed the rules so that a broader pool of children would be eligible for its programs. Originally, the program was designed for children in families at or below the poverty line - at "100 percent of poverty," according to the lingo. At least 90 percent of Head Start enrollees needed to meet that standard, although waivers were available. Now, about a third of enrolled children may come from families at or below 130 percent of poverty, as long as waiting lists for lower-income children have been depleted.
The new law also requires that at least 10 percent of an agency's enrollment must include children with disabilities unless a waiver has been granted.
Are Head Start enrollments changing as a result of these requirements? It's hard to know. The new eligibility rules took effect in late December 2007, but practically speaking, rosters didn't open up until the 2008-09 school year, and data has not yet been culled on how this has changed things on the ground.
In short, it's too early in the game to know if the 2007 reauthorization of Head Start has made a big impact. Over the next year, as more funds make their way to Head Start agencies and the federal offices within HHS become more settled, more data should emerge to tell policymakers whether Head Start agencies are steadily making the improvements that the reauthorization intended to drive.
Ultimately, the best sign of improvement would be an increase in the number of children who are entering kindergarten with the academic and social skills they need to succeed. On Friday, we will look at what the research tells us about how Head Start is faring on that end -- and how to best compare its record to that of state-funded pre-K programs.