Head Start, Meet Accountability

Since 2011, more than 350 Head Start providers have had to compete for federal grant money. That’s a huge change.
Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP Photo

BALTIMORE—St. Jerome's Head Start, a plain building in a gentrifying Baltimore neighborhood, looks as solid and unchanging as a block of concrete. It's an unlikely setting for a big shift in how early-childhood education is provided. But here and across the city, Head Start teachers are grappling with new rules for educating children. Staffers are under pressure to make sure program finances are airtight. And centers are waiting to hear the final details of a plan to change the way early-childhood services are delivered citywide.

Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children, has experienced more change in the past three years than in the previous 40. After years of debate about the program's quality and value, there's an accountability revolution coming to preschool.

Operating under authority from a 2007 law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration has started requiring Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits to compete against other local providers—and win—to keep their grants for the next five years. If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2014 the federal government will have reviewed every Head Start program under new performance criteria. So far, more than 350 of some 1,700 Head Start grant recipients have been forced to compete for their funding, and many more will be required to do so in the years ahead.

For Head Start programs that have faced barely any requirements to demonstrate their effectiveness, this counts as a revolution. "It has had a huge impact on every single program in Maryland. They really completely redesigned the way programs have to look at the way they are operating," says Linda Zang, the Maryland State Department of Education official in charge of collaborating with Head Start. It seems like every year at least one grantee in the state has been required to compete for funding, Zang says. More important, the threat of competition is pushing teachers across the state to become better educators.

Head Start has always inspired high expectations. "We set out to make certain that poverty's children would not be forevermore poverty's captives," President Johnson said when he announced the creation of the program, in 1965. Johnson envisioned a network of neighborhood organizations that would educate young children, ensure that children get medical care, and teach parents about child development.

Today, the Administration for Children and Families in the Health and Human Services Department funds a sprawling network of about 1,600 local governments, school systems, and private organizations, many of which delegate funding rather than operating programs themselves (St. Jerome's is one of the city of Baltimore's 11 delegate organizations). Providers must abide by some 2,400 federal standards that dictate everything from how toilets are cleaned to the size of facilities. There's also an additional, smaller program called Early Head Start that serves pregnant women and toddlers.

Head Start served about 8 percent of American 3-year olds and 11 percent of 4-year olds in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Families must be living below the poverty line, or hovering just above it, to apply for a spot in a program. Last year, 42 percent of all children served were white, 29 percent were African-American, and 37 percent were Latino. In Baltimore, almost two-thirds of Head Start parents hold a high school diploma or less.

Federal lawmakers increasingly want to see proof that Head Start prepares low-income children for kindergarten. By age 5, affluent children tend to show greater cognitive development than their low-income peers, mostly because affluent, well-educated parents have more conversations with their babies and use longer words when they do. President Obama often points to research showing low-income children receive lifetime benefits from attending a high-quality preschool program, including better academic performance all the way through high school.

But many Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs aren't high quality. National studies of public pre-K programs have found that children spend most of their time playing, eating, and waiting around, and that instructional quality is generally low. A federal impact study, released in 2012, found that while Head Start children experience initial gains in health, language, and reading skills, those gains usually disappear by third grade. House Republicans use that study to argue that Head Start is a failure and not worth the $8.6 billion taxpayers will spend on the program this year.

Historically, Head Start grants were awarded continuously, meaning that barring a major violation of federal standards, providers could expect to keep receiving money year after year. The Bush administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress used the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start Act to bring more competition to the program and raise the stakes of federal monitoring.

Eventually, the system will work like this: All Head Start grants will be five years long. Providers will request renewed funding at some point before the fifth year of their grant. If they have met certain performance criteria while holding the grant, funding will be renewed. If not, they'll have to compete to maintain their funding.

It took until December 2011 to finalize the rules for this process, and the new system is still being implemented. At least in theory, by the end of this year, HHS will have reviewed data on every Head Start provider and transitioned every provider to a five-year grant, either through renewing funds or subjecting it to competition.

"Many of the grantees have been funded since the '60s and '70s, and there weren't a lot of opportunities for new approaches into the programs," says Roberto Rodriguez, President Obama's White House education adviser. "We have said, 'If you are a grantee that does not measure up, you will face an open competition.' "

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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