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.' "
HHS has only released the results of the first round of competition, which took place in 2012. The results of the 2013 round will be announced later this year, and providers have already been notified if they'll have to compete in 2014. 80 of the 125 providers that competed in 2012 kept their grants, and the rest lost either part of all of their funding to another organization, according to HHS.
In their assessments, Head Start providers must now meet seven performance criteria. Five are administrative—things such as having the right licensing and being financially solvent. Providers must also set goals for preparing children for kindergarten, and take steps to achieve them. The last and most important change is a requirement that programs meet minimum thresholds on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a privately developed tool that assesses how teachers and staff interact with children.
CLASS doesn't measure learning outcomes, per se, but high scores are correlated with better learning. "It's been used in a lot of research and has been validated—meaning that those who have developed this tool have found in numerous research studies that when teachers interact in these richer ways with children, that leads to better outcomes," says Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation's Early Learning Initiative.
Monitors use the CLASS tool to rate programs in three areas: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Teachers get high scores for instruction if they seize on teachable moments all day long: asking children questions, responding with more than one-word answers, and introducing new vocabulary words even in casual conversation.