Head Start Data Are Totally Interesting, We Swear

Blog Post
Jan. 15, 2014

Head Start is the largest single early childhood program in the United States, serving 1,142,000 children, ages birth to 5, and pregnant women through Head Start and Early Head Start programs in 2011-2012. But to call Head Start a “single” program is a bit misleading, as 1,765 programs provided Head Start services in the 2011-2012 year. Each of those programs, including both grantees and subcontractors, is required to submit an annual Program Information Report (PIR), creating a large and rich dataset on how this program functions on the ground. The 2007 reauthorization of Head Start set new requirements for teacher credentials, including that 50 percent of teachers have a bachelor’s degree by 2013. This goal was surpassed in 2012, when 62 percent of teachers held a bachelor’s, highlighting the importance of PIR data in gaining insight into the Head Start teaching force.

One look at the table of contents in the PIR form makes clear this is an in-depth data collection effort. Broadly, the areas of focus can be broken into:

PIR table 1

What happens once all of this information is submitted? The Administration of Children and Families (ACF) uses PIR data to release public reports on the status of Head Start. For researchers, students, and policy wonks, though, the real allure lies in the online database, which includes data not just on Head Start grantees, but also on grantees providing Early Head Start services, as well as detailed information on the Migrant and American Indian Alaskan Native Head Start programs.

The mass of data contained in the PIR database can help answer high-level questions in many areas of program operations. New America’s Clare McCann has written before about Head Start surpassing its national goal for 50 percent of lead teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees by September 2013, but the PIR data help put this high-level goal into greater context. In 2011-2012, Head Start programs (excluding Early Head Start) employed 177,766 staff members, plus more than 10,000 contracted staff members and over 700,000 parent volunteers. This includes 45,635 Preschool Lead Teachers and 47,002 Preschool Assistant Teachers.

What do the credential distributions look like among these professionals? It’s clear from the table below that while higher degrees are on the rise among lead teachers, the vast majority of assistant teachers still have less than an associate’s degree in early childhood education (ECE).

PIR table 2

PIR data also provide interesting insights into the diversity of Head Start staff nationwide. Half of the child development staff report their race as white, with another 29 percent identifying as black or African American. Twenty-five percent of staff report they are of Hispanic or Latino origin. While not an exact match, the racial and ethnic breakdown of child development staff aligns closely to that of the children they work with daily. While individual reports on Head Start may address staff or student demographics, the PIR data provide access to the source data in a usable format allows for side-by-side comparison, as illustrated below.

PIR table 3

Many researchers and stakeholders, including myself, have written about the issues of high turnover and low compensation in the early childhood, birth-to-school-entry world. In Head Start programs, 5,930 child development staff members left their positions since the previous year’s PIR. Seventeen percent indicate they left to change fields, while 26 percent indicated they left for “[h]igher compensation/benefits package in the same field (e.g., teacher left to school system).” The fact that roughly one in four Head Start teachers stays in the education field, but leaves the program due to compensation issues, calls real attention to the relationship between pay and teacher retention. The Office of Head Start provides guidance on compensation for program staff, acknowledging that, “the program’s ability to maintain a skilled and motivated work force is employee compensation.” But the turnover data indicate improvement is still needed, particularly as staff members are required to increase their credentials under the new Head Start law.

But the turnover data indicate improvement is still needed, particularly as staff members are required to increase their credentials under the new Head Start law.

The turnover data also indicate that 57 percent of teachers left Head Start for “other reasons” that are not specified. This is just one example of the PIR’s limitations. While the PIR collects large amounts of data, there are still enough gaps to limit its usefulness.  The nature of the Head Start program also makes it difficult to link data to the K-12 system; since grantees are not necessarily entities in local education agencies, there are additional complications to connecting child- teacher- and program-level data once children leave the Head Start program.

Often in early education, we lament (here, here, and here) the lack of comprehensive data on enrollment, demographics, salary, and program services. But even with its shortfalls, the Head Start PIR offers a rare repository of data in the world of early education."