July 25, 2014

Five Totally Doable Things to Improve Head Start

By Bellwether

Share this article

A lot of what’s needed to improve early childhood education costs money–lots of it. These costs are one of the major barriers to progress in improving access to quality preschool. But there are several things that policymakers could do now to help improve Head Start that wouldn’t cost much. Not all of them would make a huge different, but they offer some ways to move now on improving early childhood outcomes even without additional money:

1. Make Head Start Performance Monitoring reports available online–and make them useful to stakeholders. Every three years, Head Start conducts and on-site monitoring report of each Head Start grantee’s compliance with the Head Start performance standards. Because the performance standards are so extensive, they produce a wealth of information about the quality of Head Start providers–and the most recent reports also include measures of the quality of teaching in Head Start classrooms. HHS has recently started posting these reports on its website, but they are hard to find, only available for some grantees, and the reports themselves are mind-bogglingly bureaucratic and hard to understand even for wonks like me. HHS should make all the reports available on its website, and include in each report and user-friendly cover page that outlines key strengths and weaknesses of each Head Start program, as well as any serious findings, in a way that is easy for parents, community members, and local policymakers to understand. By making Head Start grantee strengths and weaknesses more transparent to the people who care most about them, this would help spur improvement.

2. Analyze data collected by the Head Start enterprise system to learn about what program features correlate with improved quality. HHS collects a wealth of data on Head Start grantees, from budgets, to staff qualifications, the curriculum and assessments they use. But it doesn’t currently do much to analyze that data or generate lessons for the field. With the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, Head Start now has a common, agreed upon metric of program quality that is supported by research (although it also has limitations, which I discuss here). Researchers could use CLASS and other data collected by Head Start to analyze the curriculum, budgets, and other features of the highest performing grantees, or to analyze relationships between quality and these same factors, in order to generate lessons for the broader field and help other grantees improve.

3.Make the designation renewal process more transparent. In contrast to high-profile, highly transparent Department of Education grant competitions like Race to the Top and i3, the Head Start designation renewal process, in which providers who fall short of quality standards are required to compete to retain their grants, is highly lacking in transparency. While HHS published a list of winners of the first round of designation renewal, it did not share information about who else applied for grants, guidance given to reviewers, or the scores received by winners and other applicants. This time around it hasn’t even publicly released a list of selected grantees. Making the process more transparent would increase accountability and ultimately encourage more high-quality providers to apply.

4. Allow grantees to seek performance standards waivers. Head Start’s 2,400 performance standards limit grantees’ flexibility to innovate and make it hard to strategically focus resources in ways that are likely to have the greatest impact for kids. Federal policies should enable grantees to receive waivers from performance standards requirements if they can present a compelling argument that increased flexibility would enhance their ability to serve children and families. Waivers could be limited to grantees with good CLASS scores and a track record of strong performance and should be offered only for a limited number of years (possibly in conjunction with 5-year grant renewals) with extension contingent on performance. Ideally, HHS could collect information on they types of waivers that grantees request, to inform future revision of the performance standards.

5. Revise the performance standards. Ok, this is not exactly an easy lift. It’s, well, a Joe Biden quote. But it doesn’t cost money, it can be done with existing regulatory authority and doesn’t require Congressional action, and it’s the number one thing that is necessary to help improve Head Start.

–Sara Mead

More from this topic

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.