Federal

Head Start Proposal Aims to Turn Up Heat on Lagging Programs

By Christina A. Samuels — October 05, 2010 4 min read
Niahla Johnson peeks out from her class line after recess at Skelly Early Childhood Education Center in Tulsa, Okla. Proposed federal rules would impose tighter accountability standards for Head Start programs.

In one of the biggest changes to Head Start in its 45-year history, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced proposed rules that would force low-performing programs to compete for their federal funding.

About 1,600 Head Start grantees around the country run programs for low-income preschool children, at a cost of about $7.2 billion annually. At least a quarter of the grantees being evaluated in any given year—those falling below a certain performance threshold—would be required under the new rule to “recompete” for their grants against other interested entities in the community.

The 25 percent requirement would go beyond a recommendation from a federal advisory committee that 15 to 20 percent of grantees be required to recompete in any given year. But government officials said that the 25 percent number sends a message that Head Start will only support high-quality programs. The recompetition requirement would also apply to Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women, infants, and toddlers.

‘Tough, But Fair’

“For the Office of Head Start and the department, we are really trying to get the message out to grantees that it’s about increasing quality and holding grantees accountable,” said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director of the federal Office of Head Start, in an interview.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a member of the Head Start advisory committee, said he was “floored” that the federal agency accepted the recommendations and made them even more stringent.

“This is great, and it should have happened a long time ago,” he said.

And Joel Ryan, executive director of a Head Start advocacy group for programs based in Washington state, called the proposed rules “tough, but fair.”

Nancy Scales works on an art project with Key'Shon Holmes, left, and Sacira Polley during class at Skelly Early Childhood Education Center, a Head Start program in Tulsa, Okla.

He added:"Those programs that aren’t doing a good job are holding everyone back.”

Head Start programs are evaluated on a rotating basis, and not every one is reviewed each year. The proposed rules say those up for evaluation in a particular year would be reviewed under seven performance conditions that fall into the categories of program quality, licensing and operation, and fiscal and internal controls.

Programs that are above a certain threshold will be federally funded on a five-year cycle. Programs that fall below the threshold would recompete. And even if serious deficiencies noted during a review are corrected, the grantee would still be required to recompete for federal funds.

If examining the seven conditions do not result in at least a quarter of the grantees evaluated in any given year recompeting for federal money, monitoring officials propose to look at additional factors in order to meet the 25 percent requirement.

Program Struggles

The proposed rule does not change existing regulations for when a grant can be terminated. Funding can still be terminated immediately if a program has a serious violation related to child care or financial integrity. Terminated grantees will not be permitted to compete for funding for five years.

Comments on the proposal will be accepted until Dec. 21.

The proposed changes come in the midst of difficult times for the preschool program. The intent of Head Start is to meet the social, educational, and physical needs of poor young children, preparing them to achieve in school at the same levels as their more-affluent peers.

However, studies have found mixed results for children in Head Start. The latest large-scale study, which was released in January, evaluated nearly 5,000 children. The Head Start children showed marked early gains in language and literacy. But by the end of the 1st grade, most of those advantages seem to have disappeared.

In 2007, the Congress made major changes to Head Start. Programs were no longer able to keep their federal grants indefinitely, absent major issues of mismanagement or regulatory noncompliance. Instead, grantees were to be given awards every five years. The Congress also authorized the health and human services department to create the recompetition process.

‘Ambitious’ Proposal

Mr. Haskins, a former White House and congressional advisor on welfare issues and the co-director of the Washington-based Brookings Center on Children and Families, said that “potentially, it’s the most serious reform in the history of Head Start. It’s a signal that we’re really serious. We intend to close bad programs.”

W. Steven Barnett, the co-director for the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., had similar praise for the proposed regulations, calling them “the most ambitious change in Head Start possibly in 40 years.”

The proposed regulations mark a necessary change, he added. “We have a long way to go to excellence. Just ‘good’ isn’t good enough,” he said.

The new rules may prompt Head Start programs to use performance data to see how well their preschoolers are prepared for school, as is now done in the Head Start program run by the Community Action Project, or CAP, in Tulsa, Okla.

Oklahoma has a pre-kindergarten program, and CAP has a collaborative partnership with the 41,500-student Tulsa school district to also provide pre-K services. While the district educates about 2,200 4-year-olds, the CAP Head Start program serves about 600 additional 4-year-olds, plus 600 3-year-olds. Cecilia J. Robinson, the senior director of early childhood programs for CAP, said the program uses data to improve its education practice, for example, providing professional development to teachers after determining that children in the program were weak in cognitive and language skills. “We really see ourselves as a small, early-childhood school district,” she said.

The new rules “are not something we’re worried about as a grantee,” Ms. Robinson said. In a reform-driven age, the rules “are not targeted at agencies, so much as focused on improvement.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Proposal on Head Start Aims to Turn Up Heat on Lagging Programs

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