The Never-Ending Struggle to Improve Head Start

The federal government has invested billions in preschool, but there’s still lots of room to grow.

In this New York Post photo from the summer of 1965, Elizabeth Ching is first in line at PS 177 in New York City to register for Head Start. (Louis Liotta (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. / Getty Images)

This story is the third in a series about public preschools that will also examine preschool solutions found in other countries, the condition of preschool teachers, and the political future of preschool. The first story, about how little the U.S. invests in young children, can be found here. The second story, about how Boston’s preschool success is “percolating up” to later grades, can be found here.

PORTLAND, Ore.—Fifty-one years ago in the White House Rose Garden, former President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the launch of Head Start.

“Five- and 6-year-old children are inheritors of poverty's curse and not its creators,” Johnson told his audience as he explained that the federal government would be, for the first time, funding education and health services for children living in poverty in the form of a public preschool program. That first summer, according to a press release from the time, the program was to serve 530,000 children in 11,000 centers at a cost of $112 million, or $857 million in today’s dollars.

“This program this year means that 30 million man-years—the combined lifespan of these youngsters—will be spent productively and rewardingly, rather than wasted in tax-supported institutions or in welfare-supported lethargy,” Johnson promised.

But has that come to pass? No rigorous research project followed the children Johnson was talking about to determine whether now, in their mid-50s, the 1965 Head Start graduates are living the productive and rewarding lives predicted for them. Critics charge that Head Start is a big federal program spending billions of tax dollars on a pipe dream: that the effects of being born into poverty can be averted for a lifetime with a few hours a day spent in a classroom at age 4. On the other hand, its champions argue that everything Johnson predicted is still possible, if only the country gives the program the resources it needs to succeed.

Today, Head Start is nearing the end of a decade of big reforms, meant to improve quality and get closer to meeting the goals that Johnson laid out for it when he announced this new front in his War on Poverty. Simultaneously, cities and states are increasing their public preschool enrollments slowly, but steadily. If all continues apace, the largest public program in the country could be just one step ahead of the locals, creating a roadmap for how to operate a public preschool program big enough to serve more than 1 million children without sacrificing quality.

One of the key elements of Head Start has always been its emphasis on local control. Rather than rolling out a one-size-fits-all program, the idea was to give grants to local agencies, like school districts, churches, and other non-profits, which would develop their own programs based on local needs. That doesn’t mean there are no rules.  In fact, there are so many standards preschools must meet to be considered a Head Start program that directors often say that a significant portion of their time is spent documenting how they meet the federal government’s requirements. But there is also substantial variation between programs, depending on which local agency holds the grant.

Portland Public Schools in Oregon was one of the local agencies that received a grant that first summer in 1965. Eventually, when funding became available, it made the transition to a full-year program. Today, the Sacajawea Head Start center in North Portland appears to be exactly what Johnson had in mind all those years ago. The building is clean and bright, student art covers the walls, teachers with a solid background in early education lead small classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds in daily half-day programs. All of the primary federal requirements have been accounted for: medical check-ups, eye and dental screenings, a nutritious lunch, a parent council. They also have family case workers who help adults access services for which they’re eligible and set goals to help them move into steadier, better paying work.

“Comprehensive services—that’s what makes us amazing,” said Deborah Berry, the director of Portland Public Schools’ Head Start. “I go to that old term: whole child. If they’re healthy, they can learn. If they’re hungry, they can’t.”

On the last day of the 2015-16 school year, most of the children here are finishing their morning snack, served family style—a Head Start norm—as quickly as they can. They eat peaches from shared platters that they have learned to politely pass to each other. But today is field day, and no one wants to linger over their food too long. Next, it’s clean-up time and then hand-washing and teeth-brushing, another norm and part of Head Start’s focus on teaching hygiene and self-care alongside the ABCs and 123s.

“When I grow big, I’m going to be a teacher,” said one little girl in braids who, when asked her age, held up one hand, all five fingers splayed wide. Their teacher, a classmate chipped in, was “nice and good.” (The center director asked that children not be identified by name for this story.) After they were done cleaning, the girls said excitedly that it would be time for a story and then, finally, time to go outside.

The Portland program, which served 844 children at seven sites in the 2014-15 school year, has a lot going for it. Every teacher has a state teaching certification, which requires a master’s degree. Teachers here are union members paid on par with the K-12 teachers in the district. Kids learn from a carefully selected curriculum for both reading and math that is aligned with the district’s kindergarten curriculum. They even have a certified, full-time art teacher, a rarity in a Head Start program. (The art teacher happens to be my cousin.)

Moreover, 27 percent of program staff are parents of current or former Head Start children. One of the original goals of the program nationwide, and one Berry takes seriously, was to provide jobs for parents of Head Start children. Hiring parents, whose educational backgrounds are often scattered, has become harder as qualifications to work in the program—meant to raise quality—have risen, Berry said. “Before, we could hire parents and grow our own [staff],” Berry said. Now, she says they are looking more to a pool of professional early-childhood providers.

Former President George W. Bush performs the bipartisan presidential ritual of reading to young children at Highland Park Elementary School in Landover, Maryland, in the summer of 2003. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Reviews of the Portland program conducted in 2016 by the Administration for Children and Families, the federal governing body for Head Start, found nothing to correct. Evaluations of classroom climate and teacher competence are well above the national mean.

Despite its evidently strong program, there is scant empirical evidence supporting Portland’s success at improving the academic futures of its graduates beyond that first year of kindergarten entry. The same is true of Head Start as a whole. And lacking hard numbers, political thinking as to whether or not children’s futures could be affected positively by Head Start has vacillated between certainty and skepticism.

“It is some of the most important work in the country,” said Joan Lombardi, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank. Lombardi also served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Administration for Children and Families during both the Clinton and Obama presidencies. “It has been a life-changing program for millions and millions of children,” she said.

But the work isn’t reaching enough children early enough or for long enough, Lombardi argues. Indeed, the program has never reached all of the children it’s meant to serve: 3- and 4-year-olds whose families make less than the federal poverty limit, which is currently $24,300 annually for a family of four. Head Start served just 41 percent of its eligible population in the 2014-15 school year. Early Head Start, for children 3 years old and younger, served 4 percent of those eligible, according to the National Head Start Association, a professional organization.

“Many times during the course of its history it's been underfunded and run into issues of quality,” Lombardi said. “You’ve got tremendous potential, but it’s time for us to fully fund it.”

If Head Start were to serve every eligible child at the current rate, it would cost at least twice the $9.2 billion spent to serve about 1 million children in the 2016 fiscal year. The price tag for Early Head Start, which is included in the $9.2 billion figure, would have to increase 25-fold. Those increases are rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations based the percentage of eligible children currently served and do not account for possible economies of scale. It should also be noted that some portion of children eligible for and not served by Head Start are covered by state-funded preschool programs.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the cost of serving every 3- and 4-year-old child living in poverty in America (the United States’ poverty rate is more on par with countries like Mexico than with its European allies) would be closer to $30 billion than $9 billion. For comparison, that’s still less that the $32 billion available in higher-education tuition support for disadvantaged students though the federal Pell grant program this year.

But the U.S. has a long tradition of deferring to the family when it comes to the education of very young children. And spending $30 billion on preschool may be too high a price tag for the American public and politicians to accept.

They’d be right to hesitate before signing a check, said Mark Lipsey, the director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University, who has researched large public preschool programs and is uncertain of their efficacy. “I think people are misled about the strength and depth of the evidence of scaled-up public-preschool studies,” Lipsey said.

The only long-term study of the program, called the Head Start Impact Study, began following enrollees in 2002 and stayed with them through third grade. Researchers found that by third grade, all the academic advances the children had made during their Head Start year had faded. And yet, Lipsey also says that enough is known about the potential for strong outcomes that tossing out existing public preschool programs is a bad idea too. “If you’ve got a platform, the most obvious thing is to see what you can do with that and make it better,” Lipsey said, referring specifically to state preschool programs but voicing an idea that could easily apply to Head Start.

And that is exactly what Head Start has been doing since the initial results of the Impact Study were released in 2006. New regulations, laid out in the Head Start Act of 2007, require better-educated teachers, a stronger focus on academics, and more stringent requirements for local agencies to continually re-qualify for their grant money. Even those in the world of education research and those closely connected to Head Start who challenged the Impact Study’s findings, saying it was poorly set-up, admit that the changes it spurred were positive ones. “There’s been a lot of work done to intensify the impact, and I think it’s a much stronger program now,” Lombardi said.

However, none of the changes address the No. 1 culprit advocates blame for Head Start’s middling performance: a severe lack of cash. Broadly speaking, many of the most common complaints about Head Start’s quality can be traced to money. Many programs have long wait lists, serve children for only a few hours a day, and are sometimes not even able to provide services for the entire school year, let alone the summer months.

Unlike their counterparts in Portland, Head Start teachers nationally also tend to be poorly paid. Many live close to the poverty levels of the students they serve, especially if they live in expensive areas or are single mothers trying to make it on Head Start wages. The mean salary for a Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree (and 73 percent of the teaching force has a bachelor’s or higher) was $33,072 in 2015, according to the Early Childhood Workforce Index put out by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, a think tank. For Early Head Start, where more teachers have a certification, but no degree, the mean salary was $23,268, according to the National Head Start Association.

Lady Bird Johnson, a great champion of “Project Head Start” during her time as first lady, visits a classroom at the Kemper School in Washington, D.C., in 1968. (White House Photo Office Collection)

Low pay is not a new issue. Members of the National Head Start Association first brought their concerns about wages to Congress in 1986. In 1988, the federal government allocated more money for salaries, but the increases over time have never kept up with the rising cost of living or with the salaries of kindergarten teachers, whose students are just one year older.

“You can’t solve this problem without putting more money into it,” said Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at U.C. Berkeley. “Beyond that, the ECE [early-childhood education] field generally has pursued a strategy of: ‘Raise qualifications and the rest will come.’ I think we’ve pretty much seen that’s not the case.”

Many people in Head Start have earned degrees in the last decade, she points out, but wages have stayed flat. Requiring, even helping, employees to get higher degrees without being able to compensate them for their new skills means turnover is an ongoing problem. Teachers with a bachelor’s degree in education can make as much as twice their Head Start salary at the local public school.

Meanwhile, current Head Start teachers also tend to be better at the care part of their jobs than the instruction one. An evaluation tool, known as CLASS, evaluates how emotionally connected preschool teachers are to their charges—a critical element of successful teaching for young children—as well as their ability to teach literacy, math, and critical-thinking skills. As a whole, Head Start teachers score high on their ability to provide emotional support to their students and lower on their ability to teach academic content. Proponents say higher wages would keep the best teachers in the field longer and allow for more continuous development of their instructional skills.

Leadership capacity at the small local agencies that receive federal grants to run Head Start also varies. Not every Head Start program is placed within a school district like Portland’s. And school-district placement alone is no guarantee of quality, because many schools districts have plenty of their own problems. Some small nonprofits do an excellent job offering Head Start preschool in an intimate setting, while others struggle year-to-year.

In spite of these issues, there are many bright spots. There’s the program in Glendale, California, that has made math and science a daily focus. There’s the one in Guilford, North Carolina, that provides GED and computer skills classes for parents on site. And there are the countless testimonials from former students who tell how the program changed their lives.

Head Start, always conceived as an anti-poverty program and not just a vehicle for 4-year-old education, is also one of the only major federal programs Washington lawmakers from both the left and right agree on. Funding increased this year, and a new stream was added that will allow existing programs with successful grant applications to offer full-day services.

Berry, the Portland Public Schools’ Head Start director, said that, for the most part, she is a fan of the new focus on quality; she is hoping to qualify for new funds to make more of her classrooms full-day. However, most of the new requirements have had little effect on her program, she said, because it already exceeds most of them. In large part, she said, that’s because she has access to funding well beyond what is provided by the federal grant. “We wouldn’t be able to provide the services if we were not able to blend the funds,” Berry said.

Only 43 percent of Berry’s funding comes from Portland Public Schools’ federal Head Start grant. The rest comes from the state of Oregon’s preschool grant program (45 percent), a local Portland tax (5 percent), and Portland Public Schools (7 percent). All told, Portland spent about $8.9 million on its school-district-based Head Start program in fiscal year 2016. On average, that’s $10,650 per enrolled child. The national average is $1,000 to $2,000 less, depending on how it’s calculated.

Were more programs to get the support Portland’s program enjoys, perhaps they too could provide the staff, curriculum, and comprehensive health and family services that leaders here say make a difference.

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.