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Some Theories on the Low Response to Head Start Recompetition

Published:  August 20, 2013

This guest post was written by J.M. Holland, a Head Start teacher in Richmond, Va., and adjunct faculty in the school of education at Virginia Commonwealth University. He writes about education at http://emergentlearner.com/ .

In my previous post on the preliminary Head Start recompetition awardees I noted that there were very few new providers. Some might consider this a failure of the provision to spur sufficient competition as was promised. As a Head Start teacher I have some theories, based on my close-to-the-ground perspective, that explain these results. There may not have been many new grantees in the first cohort because there were not a large number of new applying agencies. "New" in this sense refers to grantees that did not previously have a grant or partnership for a Head Start program. The other possibility is that the Office of Head Start renewed or transferred from grantee to partners, the awarded grants in the interest of funding high program quality with proven track-records, facilities, partnerships, and staff already in place.This lack of incentive for "new" grantees may be due to a non-existent profit margin or the high risk involved with the current accountability measures. This cost/benefit scenario combined with unwillingness, by the Office of Head Start, to fund new grantees that are underprepared to provide high-quality services to children and families living in poverty, creates a distinct lack of recompetition. This lack of interested applicants and new awardees also sends a signal about the next steps needed to reform Head Start.

Barriers to Competition

It is a simple proposition to suggest that competition among providers will allow the market-based economy to work its wonders on Head Start so that the best possible programs receive funding. What those who have never worked in Head Start may not realize is that Head Start is not an easy program to replicate, much less innovate. The simplest reason for this is the incredibly thorough accountability system built into the Head Start grantee process – the Head Start Monitoring Review. This external evaluation, which occurs every three years, serves as the mechanism for re-competition.


The organization that conducts this review, Danya International, Inc., is a private company contracted by the Office of Head Start.  The systems a Head Start program implements are built to meet this review. It was just two years ago that the monitoring review team visited our program here in Richmond, VA. The last time we had a review of our 48 Head Start classrooms, six Early Head Start classrooms, and our grantee agency, we spent the entire year making sure we were ready at a moment’s notice. (Monitors may arrive unannounced.) The monitoring team consisted of more than a dozen reviewers. From what I remember, of these reviewers, five monitored child development (formerly education), two monitored program design,  two monitored health services, three monitored family services, and one monitored financial systems.

The review lasted approximately a week. During that time, the child development review team evaluated 13 sample classrooms with the Classroom Assessment Scoring System. They also combed through our documentation, monitoring, and tracking of data regarding child outcomes. This included review of individual child records, classroom documentation, and program-wide data. For the child development service area alone, they interviewed the director, child development managers, classroom teachers, assistants, volunteers, and parents. A similar process was used in the other services areas. Building a program from scratch to meet the rigorous monitoring review process would be an uphill march.


Another major inhibiting factor in creating a new Head Start program is the compressed timeline to set-up a Head Start program, from scratch, in a local school system or with child care partners. The steps involved are more like ballroom dancing than a two-step shuffle. Building the types of community partnerships necessary to fully support a Head Start program is a process that could take years, if not decades. Head Start grants seems to favor organizations that are community-embedded and that meet the needs of children, families, and localities. An entity applying for a grant would need to secure space, hire staff, train staff, implement monitoring systems, build relationships with local communities, and ensure that the entire program is up to Head Start standards from day one. This would all need to be done in cooperation with the parent-led policy council.


Finally, it would be very difficult to design and implement a Head Start grant that met all the requirements of the Head Start Performance Standards but that is also substantively different from a previous provider. The performance standards include requirements such as staff credentialing, square feet per child, food preparation, diversity of cultural representation in materials, a purchased or locally designed curriculum, teacher-child interactions, and systems for tracking and monitoring student growth. The standards go on and on. They are an incredibly important part of the process of the Head Start program. They are likely the major reason Head Start has been around for almost 50 years. They are also likely the reason the program has not seen significant innovation since its inception. The recompetition process is only one part of reforms that need to take place for Head Start to meet its mission. The next step to transforming Head Start is a major revision of the Head Start performance standards.

Originally, Head Start was a social program designed to, in some ways, acculturate children living in poverty into the structures of formal schooling. It was also a community-oriented approach to help parents living in poverty to set and meet goals for educational attainment, workplace viability, and parenting skills. As several Early Head Start studies have shown, these are still activities Head Start does very well. Since the 1990s, however, the major focus for Head Start has been increasingly academic. The Head Start Act of 2007 formalized the idea of school readiness in the operations of Head Start but this new provision was laid overtop of the already existing performance standards. In a few cases, the Head Start Act and the current version of the performance standards contradicted. In these cases, while developing our programmatic documentation of school readiness our program chose to go with whichever standard was higher. This type of muddling through the CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations) to design a high quality program distracts from the job Head Start programs set out to do.

Outcome Oriented Performance Standards

Currently, the Head Start Performance Standards are organized by service areas including Health, Family Services, Child Development, Program Design and Management, Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment, and Attendance. One suggestion for a way to make the standards more streamlined would be to reorganize them in terms of outcomes. If the standards were organized according to outcomes like school readiness, family engagement, physical, emotional, and mental health then service area managers and Head Start staff could clearly see how their work contributes to the overall quality of the child and family experience. It would also make it easier to see where program standards are overlapping or redundant. For example, when school readiness is considered the job of Child Development and Family Service both types of program staff can directly see the relevance of their work with children and parents in supporting literacy at home.

The siloing of the service areas by the performance standards creates disconnect for potential grantees to understand how and why Head Start can be successful. A move to organize the standards by outcome would enable programs to create innovative approaches to service delivery. For example, a teacher with a background in social work could work a half-day with students and then support parents’ and children's emotional health through home visiting while the child is still at school. Or, a family services staff member also certified as a reading teacher could conduct home visits to teach parents and children the value of literacy.

Letting go of the service-area structure in the performance standards could lead to a reenvisioning of roles, responsibilities, and processes in Head Start. In turn, this step could enable Head Start agencies to innovatively design programs with flexible hybrid roles that more effectively break the cycle of poverty.

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