Cleaner Classrooms and Rising Scores: With Tighter Oversight, Head Start Shows Gains
By Jason DeParle on The New York Times (full article text below)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When federal officials inspected this city’s Head Start program five years ago, they found moldy classrooms, exposed wires, leaking sewage, a sagging roof and trash-strewn playgrounds littered with safety hazards. A teacher had jerked a student so hard she dislocated the girl’s shoulder.
The visitors were so alarmed at the neglect that they began changing diapers themselves. What they did next was even more unusual: They fired the nonprofit running the program, the Urban League, and chose a new one.
Now run by Lutheran Services Florida, Jacksonville’s Head Start program has cleaner classrooms, more teachers with college degrees, a full-time teaching coach and rising scores on the federal government’s main yardstick of classroom quality. Once in the lowest 10 percent nationwide, Jacksonville now has scores that approach the national average.
The change reflects an unheralded trend: Head Start, the country’s biggest preschool program, is getting better.
More than a decade after Congress imposed new standards on Head Start, a third of its partners have been forced to compete for funding that was once virtually automatic, and the share of classrooms ranked good or excellent has risen more than fourfold. With a $10 billion budget and nearly 900,000 low-income students, Head Start is a behemoth force in early education, in an age when brain science puts ever more emphasis on early learning.
“The quality of Head Start has definitely improved,” said Margaret Burchinal, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Head Start authority. “That’s a big jump because there are so many classrooms involved. To make that much improvement across the whole country is pretty amazing.”
As the government struggles merely to stay open, Head Start’s hard-fought gains offer a story of bipartisan progress at odds with its polarizing time.
Despite its roots in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start, which was founded in 1965, has long attracted support from both Republicans and Democrats — even under President Trump, who has tried to cut other safety net programs, its budget has increased by $900 million.
That is partly because it is much smaller than other programs with ’60s roots like Medicaid ($576 billion) and food stamps ($68 billion). It is aimed at young children, who cannot be faulted for their poverty. And unlike most federal programs, Head Start bypasses state officials and directly finances local groups, including nonprofits and school systems. Many have built relationships with members of Congress, who typically view the program as a source of community services and jobs.
While Head Start was known for years as a poverty program that worked, even its friends had come to believe that it did not work as well as it could. A national study, started in the early 2000s, found modest cognitive benefits that faded out within a year. Critics noted that Head Start’s decentralized structure allowed wide variation in quality. And in 2003, a Republican attempt to cede control of the program to some state governments brought bitter opposition from Democrats, who feared it could lead to Head Start’s demise.
But four years later, Congress passed a bipartisan law that retained federal control while requiring periodic audits of classroom quality, with groups in the lowest 10 percent forced to compete to keep their grants. “The fact that both parties were behind it meant you couldn’t just end it on a whim,” said former Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who pushed the overhaul. “Programs understood they had to step up their game.”
The monitoring began in 2012 with an observational tool called CLASS, which is devised to measure teaching quality. Developed at the University of Virginia, it quantifies three aspects of a teacher’s performance: instructional support, emotional support and classroom organization. In essence, it gives the government a report card on each of its nearly 1,600 Head Start programs.
In the first four years, about 120 of those programs lost all or part of their grant.
In addition to the more stringent oversight, other factors that may explain rising scores include an increase in funding per child (18 percent in the last five years) and better teacher training. Nationwide, the share of Head Start teachers with a bachelor’s degree has risen to 73 percent, from 47 percent a decade ago.
In Jacksonville, the Urban League had run the program for 17 years, but low CLASS scores in 2012 opened it to challenge. Before the competition occurred, inspectors found so many health and safety violations that they rushed the program into interim management. Lutheran Services was selected to take the program over in 2014 and now serves 1,800 children.
While federal officials faulted the Urban League for a culture of complacency, Lutheran Services, mindful of the risk of losing its grant, has invested in teacher training. The push for better teaching was on recent display as one teacher, Robin Kirkpatrick, settled her 4-year-olds on the carpet and resumed her multiday reading of a book called “Jamaica Tag-Along.” To reorient everyone, she asked some questions.
“What was the boy’s name?”
“And what was his relationship to Jamaica?”
“Brother and sister!”
“You’re good!” Ms. Kirkpatrick enthused.
One student recalled, “That boy was messing with Jamaica!”
“What do you mean, ‘messing’?” Ms. Kirkpatrick said.
“Bothering!” two students shouted. With that, Ms. Kirkpatrick had deftly introduced a new vocabulary word.
The scene was noteworthy for Ms. Kirkpatrick’s skill but also for another detail: A coach was taking notes. Evelyn Bandelaria, of the Lutheran Services staff, does practice CLASS evaluations of each teacher twice a year, to ensure they meet federal standards. (The official federal assessments happen just once every three or four years.)
The CLASS scorecard measures a long list of teacher skills, like guiding transitions, promoting language and conveying respect. Ms. Bandelaria found much to praise in Ms. Kirkpatrick’s performance, including her positive tone and her “scaffolding” — the use of reminders and cues to support the students’ grasp of the story.
But she also had a suggestion: Connect the story to the children’s lives, to give it more meaning. The use of the word “bothering” was a chance to steer them toward personal reflection. “Because in reality, there are a lot of children who will bother them,” Ms. Bandelaria said.
A nationally representative sample of programs shows rising CLASS scores, especially in “instructional support,” where Head Start is weakest. (It is easier to nurture preschoolers than to instruct them.) On a scale of one to seven, average scores rose to 2.4 in 2014, from 1.9 eight years earlier. The share of programs above a three — minimally acceptable — rose to 25 percent, from 4 percent.
With an alternative seven-point tool, the average score on “teaching and interactions” rose over the same period. The fact that both tools show the same trend gives researchers confidence that the improvements are real. “There’s an increase in classes in the midrange and a decrease in classes in the low range,” said Louisa Tarullo of Mathematica Policy Research.
Deborah Bergeron, the director of the federal Office of Head Start, said the improvement had been greatest among the program’s weakest performers. “A consistent monitoring tool like CLASS tells them what’s expected,” she said. “It’s changed the way teachers think about instruction.”
But CLASS measures teachers, not students: Whether better instruction will improve the children’s long-term performance remains unknown. Christina Weiland, a preschool expert at the University of Michigan, called the scores “a great sign” but warned that “they’re not strongly predictive” of how children do in school. “That’s why it’s hard to say it’s a resounding success.”
Dr. Weiland noted that it was time-consuming and expensive to test preschoolers and said policymakers and educators had been hesitant to introduce a culture of testing at such a young age.
Ron Haskins, a former aide to President George W. Bush now at the Brookings Institution, said the CLASS scores should be interpreted with caution.
“I’m skeptical because so many people over the years have made dramatic claims for preschool programs that didn’t pan out — we need to show the program is having a long-term impact on test scores and graduation rates. Those are the things that count.”
He said conservatives have generally remained supportive of the program, both because it is popular and because it is “an area where there’s still reason to believe if we got it right it would make a long-term difference.”
Overhauling a program as large and established as Head Start can be challenging as a matter of both politics and policy. As the Jacksonville experience shows, taking away a grant can be politically sensitive.
Federal inspectors found that under the Urban League, “underground sewage leaked into the building” at one site, and mildew made it “difficult to breathe” at another. A child was missing for two hours and was found with a “bruise and torn clothing.” But despite the systemic problems, some local leaders resisted efforts to defund the league, an old-line civil rights group.
They included Representative Corrine Brown (who is now in federal prison for corruption) and a group of ministers. The Rev. Darien Bolden said the federal government was trying to “disenfranchise the African-American community.”
Some critics say inflexible rules have unfairly forced good programs into costly, time-consuming competitions. Even programs with high CLASS scores can be forced to re-compete because of a single violation of unrelated regulations.
“There’s nothing wrong with competition, but the criteria need to be improved,” said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association. Compiling a grant application is a long, stressful process, she said, which “eats up people’s time and attention and distracts the staff from their primary mission” of educating children.
The program in Maricopa County, Ariz., was among those that felt unfairly penalized. In 2014, the county’s Human Services Department, which has run a Head Start program for five decades, voluntarily reported that a staff member briefly left a child unattended on a playground. Though the child was not harmed, the county was ordered into competition and lost much of its grant to a nonprofit group. “We had a rare, isolated incident that cut our grant nearly in half,” said Bruce Liggett, the human services director.
The East Coast Migrant Head Start Project was forced into competition because it lacked a bilingual teacher at a single site in rural South Carolina, where project officials said none could be found. It, too, lost part of its grant. John Menditto, the group’s general counsel, warns that harsh penalties may dissuade programs from serving especially disadvantaged populations like migrants.
Another problem is that programs forced to compete typically draw few rivals. Nearly half the time, an agency’s bid to keep its grant goes uncontested. Of programs that enter competition, 84 percent retain all or part of their grant. “There aren’t enough groups that want to run Head Start programs because we don’t give them enough money for what we ask them to do,” said Ruth Friedman, a former aide to Mr. Miller.
In Jacksonville, only two groups bid to replace the Urban League, and some community leaders grumbled when the annual grant, now nearly $18 million, went to Lutheran Services, a nonprofit based in Tampa, 200 miles away.
Lutheran Services has suffered its own mishaps, including two episodes of teachers spanking children, a violation of program rules. Both teachers were fired, and problems appear to have waned.
But Lutheran’s CLASS scores are up across all three areas of classroom performance. It offers scholarships for teachers returning to school. (Thirty-four of its 35 lead teachers now have bachelor’s degrees, up from about two-thirds four years ago.) And LaTanya Wynn-Hall, the program’s director, was selected by the state Head Start association as the 2018 administrator of the year.
Working with another nonprofit, the Children’s Home Society of Florida, Lutheran now offers a home visit program to parents of infants and toddlers. Among them is Dana McClenny, 25, who did not want her daughter in center-based care before she could speak, but welcomes weekly visits from a teacher, Audrey Rose.
On a recent morning, Ms. McClenny’s 20-month-old daughter, Nalani, sat on the floor as both women watched her pull stuffed animals from a container. “Oop-pee,” she said.
“That’s right — ‘open,’” Ms. Rose said.
As a single mother with her first child, Ms. McClenny said, “I didn’t know what I was doing.” Ms. Rose encouraged her to read aloud and to overcome her fear of taking Nalani outside.
The two women laughed about another tip. Ms. McClenny was afraid to let Nalani play with a baby doll, for fear it might encourage her to become a teenage mother. But Ms. Rose assured her that doll play would promote caring, not childbearing.
“Once she explained it that way, I looked at it from a different perspective,” Ms. McClenny said. “I let her play with it now.”