Quality ratings, competition coming for Head Start

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On Tuesday, federal officials released details about their plans to make Head Start grants more competitive. Under the current system, institutions that offer Head Start programs
are generally allowed to remain in the program unless they have serious
problems. Now, programs will be rated based on quality. On Tuesday, federal officials released details about their plans to make Head Start grants more competitive.

Under the current system, institutions that offer Head Start programs are generally allowed to remain in the program unless they have serious problems. The law that most recently reauthorized the program, in 2007, required that to change.

Now, programs will be rated based on quality. Every five years, at least the bottom 25 percent of Head Start programs will have to compete with other potential providers for funding.

The move drew praise from local early childhood education advocates. “We are absolutely and completely in favor of this,” says Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

An advisory committee convened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2008 had recommended that just 15 to 20 percent of grants be re-competed. That figure was expanded, though, “to ensure that lower performing programs would face competition,” according to a department fact sheet.

The announcement comes just months after the release of the Head Start Impact Study, which unleashed a wave of criticism from program opponents. The study found that the academic benefits of Head Start largely fade out by the end of kindergarten.

The new rules will require programs to compete for grants if any of the following are found:

  • *A “serious deficiency” in one of these areas: classroom management; parent and family involvement; health, safety or nutrition; financial management; eligibility screening; and services for special-needs, homeless, or other groups of students. Head Start programs are reviewed every three years to check for these problems.
  • Failure to create and implement goals for improving children’s school readiness.
  • Low performance on any part of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), an evaluation tool that all Head Start programs are now required to use.
  • Revocation of its license by a state or local agency, or suspension of its grant by the federal government.
  • Serious financial weaknesses or concern over a program’s financial viability.

If fewer than 25 percent of Head Start programs fail on these measures, however, other programs that did not fail could also be at risk of losing their grants. As yet, it isn’t clear what criteria the federal government will use to pick programs under that scenario.

Rauner says that research backs up the federal government’s priorities. “It’s not just about places for children, spaces for children, slots for children,” she says. “It’s about high-quality educational environments, responsive and stimulating interactions, and teachers that are well-trained and understand child development.”

In particular, she says, the new CLASS assessment will be a valuable tool for teachers and will be an improvement over a previously used tool, the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale. CLASS evaluates interactions between children and teachers, she notes.

“CLASS allows a pretty fine-grained look at how the teacher is using language to promote learning, the teacher’s emotional responsiveness and warmth to the child, and the specific activities the teachers are using,” Rauner says.

Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children, also favors the steps announced today. However, she adds, the City of Chicago – a “super-grantee” that administers the city’s Head Start programs – is likely not at risk of being forced to compete.

Still, “it’s going to set the bar higher,” Whelan notes. She thinks the quality support resources that were announced today – including sending federal coaches into Head Start classrooms, designating 10 programs as “centers of excellence” that will offer teachers assistance from peers, and opening four new national training centers – will improve quality locally and across the nation.

After a 90-day public comment period ends, the federal government will finalize the rules and begin implementing them within a year.