Finally, the Obama Administration Is Putting Head Start to the Test

Head Start, the nation’s most important education program for 3- and 4-year-olds, is failing too many poor students. Although no program can completely compensate for the negative effects of poverty and family background, a substantial number of Head Start programs are so ineffective that they do little or nothing to boost child development and learning. A recent evaluation sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that at the end of the first year of school, children who had attended Head Start did no better than similar children who did not attend Head Start. The bottom line is that taxpayers get little for their annual investment of $8 billion in Head Start.

No wonder, then, that last month the Obama administration took the strongest action in the history of the Head Start program to force improvements. The administration decided to follow the recommendation of a panel of experts appointed at Congress’s behest in 2007 to propose a system for improving or shutting down failing Head Start programs. The panel reported its recommendation to HHS at the end of the Bush administration. Now, the Obama administration has shaken the dust off the report and is proposing a system, even better than the one recommended by the panel, to shut down failing programs.

Here’s how it would work: Each of the nation’s local Head Start programs would be reviewed over the next three years. They would be evaluated by HHS based on seven criteria that measure program performance, fiscal integrity, and licensing standards and operations. By far the most important and telling part of the evaluation would be the use of a well-known rating instrument in which professional observers watch the teachers in Head Start classrooms and, based on reliable and well-defined ratings, gauge teachers’ ability to provide emotional support and instruction to students. What happens between teachers and students in the classroom is the key ingredient in student learning. Thus, the administration’s choice of this reliable and widely used teacher rating scale, developed by researchers at the University of Virginia, will provide the most important measure of quality.

What happens if, based on the evaluation and the classroom rating, the Head Start program does not measure up? The program would then be required to compete with other programs to keep its funding. The solution, in other words: Use the market to get rid of underperforming Head Start programs and fund new programs that hold more promise. If the new program did not perform, it would also lose the Head Start money.

To ensure that Head Start programs all over the country get the administration’s message, the Obama reforms require that a minimum of 25 percent of all Head Start programs be exposed to competition from other programs each year. If the new programs are better than the ineffective Head Start programs they replace, the average quality of Head Start will increase each year and more children will be prepared for the rigors of public schooling.

For almost half a century, Head Start has led a charmed existence. Through Republican and Democratic administrations, through numerous federal budget crises that led to cuts in many programs, and despite growing indications that too many of its local programs were failing, Head Start has never been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that the Obama evaluation promises. Now it seems likely that within a few years, the worst Head Start programs will be shut down, replaced by energetic programs built on the realization that they must perform or lose their funding.

Numerous evaluations provide strong evidence that high-quality preschool programs can affect children’s development in ways that radiate throughout childhood and even into adulthood. Yet the single biggest source of government investment in helping poor and minority children reap the advantages of preschool has been allowed to nurture mediocrity. Now, with both Democrats and Republicans, Congress and two administrations playing lead roles, the potential for change is finally at hand. It’s almost enough to restore a person’s faith in the federal government.