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Head Start Considering Changes to Create 'Less Burdensome' Competition Process

Since 2011, Head Start programs that fail to meet certain performance standards have been required to compete for continued federal funding.

The competition process, known as the designation renewal system, is intended to weed out low-performing grantees in the federal early-childhood program. But soon after it was established, providers started complaining that the process for identifying low performers was sweeping up high-quality programs as well. Head Start serves more than a million infants, toddlers, and young children in every state and territory.

The Office of Head Start, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is now considering making some changes that would address those complaints. In a request for comments to be published in the Federal Register on Dec. 8, Head Start is proposing adjusting some standards of the designation renewal program, with the goal of zeroing in more closely on Head Start programs that really need to improve. 

The proposed changes were announced at the National Head Start Association's Parent and Family Engagement conference on Thursday by Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of HHS' Administration of Children and Families. 

NHSA, an independent organization that represents the nation's approximately 1,700 Head Start grantees, applauded the move. 

"The Head Start community commends the leadership of the US Department of Health and Human Services for proposing a long-overdue change to a policy ... that has caused unnecessary and counterproductive anxiety for programs," said Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of NHSA, in a statement.  

Head Start's Complex Evaluation Process

The designation renewal system created several triggers that could put a Head Start grantee on the list to recompete for funds. One of the most common triggers is a program's scores on an evaluation of early-childhood program quality called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS. The CLASS is an observational tool that measures three broad domains: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support. Each domain is given a score from 1 to 7, with 6-7 being considered high.

As the designation renewal program currently operates, the Office of Head Start compares Head Start grantees to a national average. Programs that score in the lowest 10 percent must recompete for funds. But Head Start programs, overall, score well in areas such as emotional support and classroom organization. The notice from Head Start says that grantees with an emotional support score of 5.69—very close to the high-quality threshold—have been required to compete, because they were in the lowest 10 percent. 

On the other hand, Head Start programs have not scored high on measures of instructional support—described as measures that facilitate language development and deeper-level thinking. Under the current system, because the trigger is driven by averages and program comparisons, programs with a 2.3 in instructional support—just barely over the minimum—have not had to recompete for federal money. 

A 2016 evaluation of the Head Start designation renewal program outlined other concerns: as the system currently stood, there wasn't much difference between programs that were required to compete because of CLASS triggers, and programs that were not. 

Head Start is proposing getting rid of the requirement that the lowest 10 percent of programs be required to compete and would make some other changes intended to get centers to focus on instructional support. The proposed changes would also let programs know sooner where they stand, rather than needing to wait several months for the Head Start office to finish evaluating programs across the country to develop thresholds and cutoffs. 

The proposed changes track with suggestions for improvment that were offered by Head Start providers back in 2015. 

"We look forward to discussing the potential changes with the entire Head Start community and other stakeholders, who share the administration's goal of ensuring Head Start is meeting its full potential," Vinci said. 


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