Early Childhood

Head Start: One Program, Dramatic Differences Among States, Study Finds

By Christina A. Samuels — December 14, 2016 4 min read
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From an Inside-the-Beltway perspective, Head Start looks like a uniform program: Money flows from the federal government (to the tune of $8.9 billion in fiscal 2016) and all providers follow a single set of standards in providing early-education and health services to disadvantaged children.

But dig beneath the surface, researchers say, and you find substantial variation from state to state in terms of program quality, percentage of eligible children enrolled, and teacher salaries.

Those are the findings of an analysis of Head Start from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, the same organization that for more than a decade has produced an annual yearbook of statistics on state prekindergarten programs.

The institute based its report on program information reports collected by the federal government from the more than 1,600 local public and private organizations that provide Head Start services around the country. Those reports are used by federal officials to guide internal improvement efforts, but are not usually used to make comparisons among states. Some of the findings include:

  • At age 4, enrollment by state of children from low-income families varies from 7 percent in Nevada to 52 percent in Mississippi. The variation in state enrollment appears to be unrelated to whether a state offers its own prekindergarten program, said W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER.
  • In Head Start overall, 73 percent of teachers had a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education or a related field. But that ranged from more than 90 percent with that qualification in West Virginia and the District of Columbia to a low of 36 percent in New Mexico.
  • In 2014-15, practically all Head Start children in the District of Columbia and in Georgia were served in programs that lasted the full school day, five days per week. In Idaho and Wyoming, only 1 percent of children were served in school-day, five-day-per-week programs.
  • The salary disparity between the average Head Start teacher and the average public elementary school teacher was more than $42,000 in Massachusetts. (The average salary in that state is about $33,000 for a Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree, compared to about $75,400 for an average public elementary teacher.) In contrast, Head Start teachers are paid on par with elementary teachers in the District of Columbia.
  • Funding per Head Start child enrolled ranged from about $5,500 in the District of Columbia to nearly $11,000 per child in Alaska, after adjusting for differences in the cost of living.

Head Start Programs Quality Measures Vary Among States

The analysis also found variations among centers on a measure of early-childhood program quality called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS. Every state received high scores for the “emotional support” portion of the CLASS. But the average score on the “instructional support” segment was 2.9 on a scale of 7. In only two states, Kentucky and Vermont, were the scores significantly above 3.

The overall picture, Barnett said, is of a program that offers many different experiences for the children it serves.

“We hope that communicating in this way will get federal policymakers, by which I mean Congress, interested in this in a different way,” Barnett said. Rather than focusing on Head Start as a big federal program that is either supported or not, lawmakers could start asking questions about why teachers in one state make so much less than teachers in another, he said. Another example is to look at the disparities among eligible children enrolled.

But some of that variation is intentional because Head Start was designed from the start to serve the needs of local communities, said Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the National Head Start Association, which represents Head Start grantees.

“In reading the report, it is important to recognize the narrow interpretation of the results. Limiting review to one data point for each measure does not accurately reflect the depth and breadth of Head Start’s impact,” she said.

The report ends with a call for a commission to look at all funding for young children and to come up with a serious funding figure for what it would cost to achieve the program’s stated goals.

“I don’t think [Congress] is just going to give Head Start $14 billion dollars,” Barnett said—the insitute’s estimate for how much more money Head Start would need over current funding to provide a high-quality program to all 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty. “Is there a better way that costs less money? We need a bunch of smart people who represent all elements of the problem, and not Head Start trying to solve the problem on their own.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.