Rules Raise Bar for Head Start Centers

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 14, 2011 6 min read
President Barack Obama visits a classroom at Yeadon Regional Head Start Center, in Yeadon, Pa. Long-awaited final regulations released by the administration will require the early-education centers to meet higher-quality benchmarks every five years.

For the first time in the more than four-decade history of the Head Start program, early-education centers will have to prove they prepare disadvantaged children for kindergarten in order to hold on to their grants.

Long-awaited final rules, published Nov. 9, require the nation’s 1,600 Head Start and Early Head Start programs, including migrant and tribal programs, to meet higher quality benchmarks every five years.

Poor performers—which the federal Office of Head Start estimates to number about one in three—will have to recompete for their grants beginning as early as next month.

The recompetition requirement is “a historic change,” according to W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J. “This is the first time that [the regulations] have included actual classroom-performance measures as a criterion for competition,” he said. “That’s certainly an important step.”

The rules set no national school-readiness standards, but they require each program to develop and use school-readiness goals, which must include pupils’ achievement and progress in literacy development, cognition and general knowledge, approaches to learning, physical well-being and motor development, and social and emotional development. They take effect Dec. 9.

“We’re supportive of the changes,” said Rick Mockler, the executive director of the Sacramento-based California Head Start Association. “The whole field of early education in the last few years has recognized that the quality of a program really has a significant impact on many outcomes for children.”

Building Quality

The $7.6 billion Head Start and Early Head Start programs are administrated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and provide early-childhood education to nearly 1 million children in poverty. A 2010 federal evaluation of nearly 5,000 students found that those who participated in Head Start had early literacy advantages when they started school, but those gains mostly faded away by the end of 1st grade.

Each program’s classroom quality will be measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS-Pre-K, which uses classroom observations to gauge teacher-child interactions that research has shown are associated with “positive child development and later achievement.”

Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the Alexandria-based National Head Start Association and a former Head Start program director, said the evaluation system will help programs create a “continuous trajectory of improvement.”

“When I saw the CLASS document, I said, ‘Gee, I wish I’d had that,’ ” during her time running a Head Start program, Ms. Vinci said. “I used to spend hours trying to put into words what I saw in a classroom in a way I thought would be helpful.”

The Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund has been both a longtime supporter of Head Start and a recent critic of program quality. Cathy Grace, the director of early-childhood development for the fund, said the more rigorous standards will be good for children.

“As expectations for children in kindergarten and the grades beyond reflect a greater intentionality of skill mastery than in the past, we must ensure all young children are ready to learn and have their developmental needs met,” Ms. Grace said, voicing particular support for the CLASS-Pre-K observations. “I think that hopefully will generate a fair and accurate assessment of what’s going on in the classroom, and it seems to me that’s what everyone’s been concerned about.”

New Requirements

A program would have to recompete for Head Start funding if it does not set and use its school-readiness goals, receives poor CLASS-Pre-K ratings, or if:

• Federal monitors find deficiencies during on-site reviews;

• State or local agencies revoke the program’s license;

• A Head Start grant has been suspended; or

• An audit has uncovered money or management problems.

However, administrators of multiple Head Start sites have voiced concern that the rules would put them at greater risk, as a program found deficient must have all its centers recompete, not just ones cited for poor quality.

“It appears the standards don’t account for scale,” Mr. Mockler said. “That’s a problem. If you’re running multiple programs, and all but one is high-performing, it doesn’t make sense to recompete all of them.”

Federal Head Start administrators stood by the decision, however, noting in the final rule that, “In a large grantee, a deficiency would not be cited for an isolated incident unless it is very severe or was not corrected when identified.”

“A grantee’s failure to ensure high-quality services are being provided to children that are served in any of their locations indicates that the grantee has failed to maintain a high-quality Head Start program through their ongoing monitoring,” the Office of Head Start explained in the final rules.

Yet Mr. Barnett argued that the program evaluation system should focus less on federal monitoring and instead include additional criteria to “ratchet up [performance goals] fairly quickly, as the highest payoff is at very high levels of performance on the CLASS, and not at mediocre levels,” as well as for child development and learning.

“There’s a tendency in the reaction to the Head Start impact study to rely even more on federalspecification of what the program is supposed to do. If that was working, we would have had much better results in the impact study,” Mr. Barnett said. “Give programs more discretion, and pay more attention to [whether they are] actually producing the impacts we want for the children and parents. You could see the new rules as a partial response to that, but they don’t cut back on the monitoring.”

Politics Continue

The rules were announced as part of President Barack Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” campaign, designed to show action taken without Congress on education and other issues.

“What we know is the first years of our children’s lives are most critical,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius during a briefing with reporters. “When our children get what they need in those early years, it can set off a chain reaction of success that can follow them through every stage of their lives.”

Yet congressional Republicans countered that the broad sweep of the changes was laid out in 2007, when Congress reauthorized HeadStart and required all programs to move to five-year grants and go through regular reviews.

“Congress passed legislation in 2007 to address some troubling problems with the federal Head Start program, and one of the provisions congressional Republicans pushed for was to require the lowest-performing Head Start programs to compete for continued future federal funds,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “I am pleased President Obama has finally issued new Head Start regulations that have been long overdue.”

The Health and Human Services department first proposed the rview-process structure in September 2010. The draft regulations had been in revisions “for quite some time” after receiving 16,000 comments on the changes, according to Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director of the federal Office of Head Start.

Yet Head Start advocates also worry that future budget fights could derail implementation of the evaluation system. “There’s a practical question of whether the federal government has the capacity to manage recompetition on the scale and quantity that they are talking about,” Mr. Mockler said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Head Start Rules Aim to Set High Bar


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