Early Ed Watch

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New Rules Make Quality Count in Head Start Programs

Published:  November 8, 2011

Today, President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services announced long-awaited changes to Head Start, the nation’s largest federally funded preschool program. New rules require all Head Start programs to be funded through 5-year grants, and those that are performing poorly will have to compete against other organizations that run preschool programs for continued funding.

The President announced the changes at a Head Start center in Yeadon, PA.  Previous policies, he said, did not provide an incentive for Head Start programs to perform well. “Head Start has a critical mission,” Obama said: “To help children from low-income families achieve their full potential and, in turn, help our country build tomorrow’s workforce. “

The new funding system, called a designated renewal system, introduces a measure of accountability that Head Start has never seen. Head Start will use the Classroom Assessment and Scoring System, an observation tool that evaluates programs and teachers based on research-based observations of classrooms by a trained professional, to monitor the quality of Head Start classrooms. Programs with scores in the bottom 10 percent of any of the three CLASS “domains” of quality (emotional climate, classroom organization and instructional support) will no longer be guaranteed a federal grant. In the jargon of federal early childhood policy, they will have to “re-compete” for that grant.

The system will be based on controversial rules proposed by HHS in September 2010, with some tweaks to that proposal.  For example, in the proposed rules, the bottom 25 percent of all programs – measured in multiple ways -- would have had to recompete at the end of their 5-year grants. Many commenters complained that the 25-percent benchmark was arbitrary. The new rules were adjusted to require Head Start programs to recompete if their CLASS scores are at or below low thresholds (a score of 1 or 2 out of 7) and to require any Head Start program to recompete if its scores represent the the lowest 10-percent in any one of the three CLASS domains.  According to the White House, previous data on low-quality CLASS scores shows that up to one-third of all grantees will have to recompete under the new measure. (Here at Early Ed Watch we want to dive more deeply into where exactly that one-third number came from. We'll keep you posted.)

These are big changes. In the past, Head Start programs typically did not have to worry about losing their Head Start funding unless egregious financial mismanagement was uncovered. There are signs that the current system hasn’t been working well, however. A 2005 report from the Government Accountabiilty Office found that the Administration for Children and Families had been recommending that some financially unstable programs were renewed for funding for years, despite never improving. And the long-awaited Head Start Impact Study earlier this year renewed questions about the quality of what children experienced in the classroom when it showed that most of the academic gains made by Head Start children before kindergarten faded by the time they reached 1st grade.

The President also took his speech today as an opportunity to dress down Congress for not taking enough action on education issues. This point has been the focus of several recent speeches but was a bit off-base today, considering that the new accountability measures for Head Start were actually mandated by Congress (with widespread bipartisan support) in the Head Start reauthorization Act of 2007.

We’ve written extensively about Head Start, and the hopes that recompetition could improve the quality of Head Start programs. Focusing on quality should shine a spotlight on the many good Head Start programs that are often unfairly painted with broad brushes of criticism for Head Start more generally. The CLASS, the instrument that is being used to evaluate Head Start programs, has many positive attributes, including its use as a valuable tool for customized professional development that can help teachers improve.  (In fact, tomorrow the Early Education Initiative will be releasing a policy paper on how the CLASS and other observation tools can promote effective teaching.) These new rules for Head Start are smart and long overdue.

P.S. Also see Sara Mead's post on her Ed Week blog, where she points out that the new rules create "a huge opening for social philanthropy and educational entrepreneurs who are interested in serving the early childhood market."

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