Getting Serious About Improving Head Start: 132 Grantees Not Measuring Up

article | December 21, 2011

For scores of agencies serving children around the country, the letter they feared has finally arrived:  A notice went out this week alerting 132 organizations, city agencies and school districts that they are not measuring up to the Office of Head Start’s standards for quality.  Large agencies in Los Angeles and New York were among them.

For early childhood experts who have questioned whether all Head Start centers are meeting high standards, the news of the letters is welcome. As we’ve described here before, this is one of the most visible signs that the Office of Head Start is serious about the “push for quality” that the Obama Administration has been championing since Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes, the Head Start director, came on board in 2009.  The new policy – known as “Head Start recompetition” – was ordered by Congress in 2007.

The news put many large agencies around the country, as well as several school districts, under a microscope and could raise questions about how they operate other early childhood programs.  Some notable organizations among the 132 are the Los Angeles County Office of Education; the New York City Administration for Children’s Services; Northern Virginia Family Services, and the cities of Baltimore, Detroit and San Antonio. Also on the list are the public schools of Pittsburgh, PA; New Haven, CT; Richmond, VA; and Milwaukee, WI. (As the Hechinger Report showed yesterday, the news is already making waves in New York City.)

These organizations are no longer guaranteed to receive another federal grant to run their Head Start programs and will have to compete for grants against other organizations who would like to open preschool classrooms with Head Start dollars.

The recompetition policy states that if organizations show evidence of low-quality based on seven indicators of trouble, they will have to compete against newcomers.  The seven indicators include the presence of at least one deficiency discovered during regular reviews by regional monitors; inappropriate or non-existent school readiness goals with data to back them up; low scores on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which is an observation-based assessment of how teachers teach; revocation of the agency’s state or local license; suspension from the Head Start program by the Administration for Children and Families; disbarment from receiving state or federal funds; and serious financial instability.

For children’s educational outcomes, the use of the CLASS is particularly important. Programs with low raw scores or scores in the bottom 10 percent of any of the three domains on the CLASS’s pre-K assessment (including emotional climate, classroom organization and instructional support) will no longer be guaranteed a federal grant.

It is not yet clear what problems were found at each of the 132 programs that were identified in this first wave of reviews conducted by the feds. This cohort was only subject to five of the seven problem indicators. Two of them -- a lack of school readiness goals and low CLASS scores -- were designed to become effective when the rules were announced, instead of retroactively back to 2009 as is the case for the other five indicators. The next round of reviews will take into account all seven indicators.

In the future, it will be interesting to learn how many programs will be forced to compete because of low teaching quality and whether any of them are attempting to help their staff to improve through targeted professional development that focuses on how adults can interact with children to help them develop cognitive and social skills.

Eventually all 1600 grantees in the United States will be reviewed, and it’s likely that more organizations will receive notices like the ones mailed this week. When President Obama announced the new rules in November, he said that one-third of grantees would probably have to compete for new grants.

CLARIFICATION 12/21 at 12:40 p.m.: An earlier version omitted information on how this first cohort of grantees was reviewed. The first cohort was judged according to five of the seven indicators of problems, not all seven.