Special Report

Head Start Programs Must Gauge Children’s Progress

By Lori Meyer — January 10, 2002 3 min read

In the realm of early-childhood education, no program has more stringent accountability demands than Head Start.

As of this school year, local operators of the federally subsidized preschool program must conduct assessments that gauge the academic, social and emotional, and physical development of the disadvantaged youngsters in their care.

Experts anticipate the push for higher quality and accountability that began during the Clinton administration will continue as a high priority under President Bush. At a conference held last summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige joined first lady Laura Bush and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to encourage early-child development.

“We need to build a bridge between powerful scientific research, homes, and preschools, and make sure that adults know how vital it is that children have strong cognitive development, even before they enter school,” Paige said in his speech to the conference.

The move to judge the early-childhood programs by the progress of their pupils, instead of processes and resources, stems from the reauthorization of Head Start in 1994.

The law’s new outcomes-based system outlined five overarching objectives and 24 subcategories for Head Start programs to meet.

The objectives focused on enhancing the growth and development of children; strengthening families as the primary caregivers; providing children with educational, health, and nutritional services; linking children and families to needed community services; and ensuring well-managed programs involving parents.

In the subsequent reauthorization of Head Start in 1998, Congress reinforced the new direction by establishing eight broad categories of child development and school readiness: language development, literacy, mathematics, science, creative arts, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and physical health and development.

Weighing Compliance

Local Head Start programs are now required to use performance measures for self-assessments, peer reviews, and program evaluation.

The 1998 reauthorization mandated that programs gather and analyze data on 13 specific outcomes related to language, literacy, and numeracy skills. Grantees are to use other indicators to guide them in producing their own instruments for ongoing assessment.

Head Start agencies can evaluate their programs through such methods as teacher observations, analysis of children’s work and performance samples, parent reports, or even the direct assessment of children.

Under terms of the federal law, Head Start programs had to begin implementing the assessments in the fall of 2000. Assessment systems were to be operating fully by the 2001-02 school year.

To make sure they meet the regulations, the federal Administration for Children and Families began monitoring the systems last year. A team from the agency visits the Head Start sites to determine compliance with what are called Head Start Program Standards and Performance Measures. The comprehensive on-site reviews take place at least once every three years.

In addition, the Family and Child Experiences Survey, launched in 1997 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, collects and analyzes data on a number of the performance measures to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of the Head Start program nationally.

Researchers are following a cohort of 3,200 children and families in 40 Head Start programs to provide longitudinal data on outcomes. Initial findings have revealed that Head Start narrows the gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers in key aspects of school readiness.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week