The early education community went to battle this week: Congress has the opportunity during the upcoming lame-duck session to vote on an ominbus spending measure that could have injected a huge amount of funding into early education. Advocates have been calling on their supporters to get on the phones to push for the former option. But it looks like they may have already lost.
What advocates wanted to see was a vote authorizing the Early Learning Challenge Fund, President Obama’s Race to the Top contest for the early childhood world. Congress could have also decided to maintain the extra funding (about $2 billion) for Head Start and Early Head Start that was included in the federal stimulus bill in 2009. Discontinuing that funding could mean that hundreds of thousands of children will be kicked off the Head Start rolls, early ed advocates say.
All of this depended on what Congress did about the budget bill that includes the early education spending and which has been stalled for months. It was possible that Congress would finally get around to voting on the omnibus bill, but there was also the possibility (now almost certain) that they’ll simply pass a continuing resolution that maintains current funding levels and leaves the big budget decisions up to the next Congress.
An article in the National Journal yesterday reported that Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has scuttled the idea of voting on the omnibus measure: “If this election showed us anything, it’s that Americans don’t want Congress passing massive trillion-dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors,” McConnell was quoted as saying. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was quoted saying that “it looks like it’s just a CR at this stage,” referring to the continuing resolution.
The likelihood that the next Congress, with a Republican-controlled House and a shrunken Democrat majority in the Senate, will support additional spending for early education is pretty small, but we’ll have to wait and see.
EarlyStories examined some suggested new rules for Head Start recently, and now a leading expert on early childhood is lauding the Obama administration in a Washington Post op-ed for proposing a new system he says could force much-needed improvements to the $8 billion program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The op-ed makes it clear that what happens before children set foot in a public-school classroom is an integral part of the national debate on education.
“A substantial number of Head Start programs are so ineffective that they do little or nothing to boost child development and learning,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, co-authored the op-ed with Barnett.
Center leaders have not entirely welcomed the proposals. Some are worried that competition would be costly, and could create more uncertainty and possibly chaos. Large centers have expressed concerns that they’ll be singled out simply because their size could lead to more problems.
The Post piece comes as a new, must-read collection of papers assessing federal policies for early childhood education and child care was released by NIEER, entitled “Investing in Young Children: New Directions in Federal Preschool and Early Childhood Policy.”
Head Start — which has had a rough year — got a shake-up this week when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced proposed regulations that will force at least a quarter of Head Start grantees to compete to stay in business. The Obama administration says the new rules will improve the quality of Head Start programs by removing programs that don’t measure up, but the new rules are likely to upset a lot of Head Start providers.
The idea to make Head Start more competitive came out of a 2005 Government Accountability Office audit, which found that Head Start often kept giving money to programs year after year, regardless of program quality. The Bush administration convened a committee to look at the issue. In the resulting recommendations, the committee proposed that 10 to 20 percent of Head Start grantees should have to compete for their grants.
Obama administration officials said they took this proposal further, raising the percentage to 25 percent, to bring more accountability to the Head Start system. Accountability has been a favorite buzzword for the administration. The Race to the Top competition — which awarded states money for proposing, among other things, new ways to make teachers and schools more accountable — just wrapped up. Obama has also pushed Congress to fund a similar competition for early education systems, known as the Early Learning Challenge Fund. So it’s no surprise that Head Start has been caught up in the “accountability” push.
“A renewed era of innovation, improvement and integrity in Head Start is here,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the press release.
The proposed rules call for ranking Head Start programs based on a variety of measures, or “triggers,” related to poor performance, including financial audits, low scores on assessments and child abuse. Programs with the most triggers would have to compete to be refunded every five years when their grant-periods are up.
Center leaders have expressed concerns about such a system, however. The director of the Washington State Association of Head Start, Joel Ryan, wrote in comments on the first set of proposed rules that “wide scale competition would be costly to administer, would create more uncertainly [sic] and chaos in the management of a complicated program, and would unfairly ‘sweep up’ high quality programs with subpar performers.”
And some large centers worry that they could be singled out because they are more likely to have a higher number of infractions due simply to their bigger size.
HHS is offering carrots as well as sticks. The department will be naming 10 “Centers of Excellence,” to be nominated by governors. These high-performing centers will offer “peer-to-peer technical assistance.” In addition, HHS is creating four training centers to help local Head Start programs.
The rules are not set in stone, yet. HHS is asking for public comments on the proposals, but my impression from a reading of the proposed rules is that the 25 percent cutoff is here to stay.
Jonah Lehrer, writing in Wired, makes an interesting point about the oft-cited High Scope Perry Preschool project, an experiment in Michigan that found short-term gains for poor African-American children enrolled in a high quality preschool program. Skeptics often note that the gains in IQ for students who participated in the high quality Perry Preschool slipped back after a few years, a critique that’s also made of Head Start and other early education programs.
But Lehrer notes that IQ may not be as important as other skills the students gained from preschool that were more durable, including self-control and grit. Kids in high quality preschool might not end up valedictorians, but perhaps they learned not to eat the marshmallow. As Lehrer puts it: “Preschool might not make us smarter – our intelligence is strongly shaped by our genes – but it can make us a better person, and that’s even more important.”
Congressional testimony on Tuesday revealed some alarming evidence of fraud at federally funded Head Start centers, at a time when some concerns and questions are being asked about a program established some 45 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson.
Prompted by anonymous tips to a fraud hotline, investigators with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in six states Head Start workers attempted to enroll children whose family incomes made them ineligible for the program.
Head Start, an agency of the Health and Human Services Department with a budget of about $9 billion this year, provides child care and other services to nearly one million children nationwide. To be eligible, children must be from families whose incomes do not exceed 130 percent of the poverty level, or about $28,600 a year for a family of four. This year, the program received $7.2 billion from Congress to serve 900,000 children in 1,600 centers, along with another $2.1 billion from the stimulus program.
According to the New York Times, Republicans on the House committee are calling for a broader investigation, while Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said her agency had begun its own internal investigation and would begin visiting centers — unnannounced.
But don’t look for Head Start centers to be shut down, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute tells USA Today, even though he is among the critics who think the program should be reformed. Why? Because there’s a Head Start center in every congressional district.
“You’re not going to put the Head Start centers out of business without an enormous political fight,” Petrilli told USA Today.”And it’s a fight they’d probably win.”
What happens when students get a chance to attend a full-day of a Head Start prekindergarten program instead of a half day? They are more likely to become better readers and to need less in the way of special education services once they get to kindergarten, according to a study released by Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
“This report reinforces the power of full-day pre-kindergarten for our at-risk students,” said Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast said in a press release about the report. “Our citizens recognize that a commitment to preparing students for college and the work world must begin at the earliest grade levels and continue throughout a child’s elementary and secondary education.”
Montgomery County is an interesting one to watch when it comes to early learning, because the sprawling school district includes both locally funded pre-kindergarten classes as well as Head Start classes that are federally funded and are aimed at four-year-olds who meet income eligibility guidelines. It would be interesting to spend some time in those classrooms and find out how the different programs differ, and how the teachers are trained. Why are they getting such good results?
With the release of President Barack Obama’s budget this week, much of the media attention has been focused on what the president hopes to do with the No Child Left Behind Law as well as his Race to the Top program. Few journalists have the luxury these days to focus exclusively on early childhood education, but those who do might want to spend some time on the website of the New America Foundation and click on the Early Ed Watch blog.
Early Ed Watch points out that Obama’s priorities offer a stark contrast to budget cuts that are part of life in tough economic times, with significant boosts to an array of programs, including $989 million for Head Start. The president has also proposed another $1.6 billion for federally funded child care programs.
So what will a potential new infusion of cash mean in local communities and cash-strapped states that have cut back on pre-kindergarten and other early childhood programs? And what will other proposed changes and consolidations of early learning programs mean? The New America Foundation has come up with a list of key questions that should be a useful jumping off point as the budget battles begin to unfold.
For the first time, Chicago public schools will formally measure just how ready little learners are for kindergarten, by piloting a new readiness measurement, according to a story in Catalyst.
Unlike a standardized test, the tool will gauge how children are ready through a series of observations over time, and by measuring their understanding of concepts such as which words rhyme, the story notes. The tool will help educators gain a better understanding of the quality of the pre-school education a child received.
It would be interesting to see what other school districts do to formally evaluate kindergarten readiness, especially in states where there is no publicly funded pre-kindergarten. There are checklists and exams and quite a few resources that are aimed at helping parents and educators answer the question.
The new assessment tool in Chicago comes as important questions are being raised about the quality of U.S. preschool programs, especially Head Start, which serves more than a million students and is under scrutiny after a major study found gains students make fade by third grade. Experts hope the new readiness tool the Chicago Public schools plans to use will help gauge just how effective half-day programs like Head Start are.
Thanks to our colleagues over at Early Education Watch for raising iquestions about the important new study that may not bode well for Head Start, the national school readiness program that is integral to President Barack Obama’s early childhood strategy.The study made its way to Congress on Wednesday.
The study found that while Head Start had a positive influence on school readiness after one year, the gains were minimal by the end of first grade. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services immediately announced plans to strengthen Head Start programs, and it will be important for journalists to follow up.
Early Ed Watch concluded that the study points to the need for giving disadvantaged children more than a a year of high quality education, and that improvements in teacher training for Head Start and all pre-kindergarten programs are needed. W. Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, offered another perpective: he noted that the findings “are based on comparing children who went to Head Start with other children who likely also received some kind of preschool experience – sometimes Head Start in another place or a state-funded pre-K program. It is especially significant because that kind of comparison will not likely show big differences.”
He also pointed out in a press release released by NIEER that “the promises of Head Start can only be fulfilled if the program is funded and staffed at the levels that have proven to make a real difference in the lives of children, something that has not happened in the entire 40-year history of the program.”
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius noted in a press release that Head Start must be improved. “The program provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and social services to low income children and families,” she noted. “Still, for Head Start to achieve its full potential, we must improve its quality and promote high standards across all early childhood programs.”
How will questions and concerns about the future of Head Start be addressed? EarlyStories has noted repeatedly that this is an issue worth paying attention and too often ignored by the press.
Head Start, which doesn’t get a lot of media attention, is back in the news for offering preschool children in its program a chance to establish healthy eating habits. The federally funded program is now pushing fresh fruits and vegetables, along with low-fat milk,and making sure children spend time playing, according to an article in USA Today.
The article is based on a survey of Head Start directors that serve some 829,000 children, and had some frightening conclusions: Some 30 percent of kids in Head Start are overweight or obese. Findings were published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, based on the work of researchers from Temple University and Mathematica Policy Research.
Directors are aware of and concerned about these issues and are offering healthier food when they have their own cooks or work directly with food services, the article noted..
A key quote in the story summed up why it’s important for journalists to look in on Head Start programs from time to time and find out what is actually going on in the classrooms of the largest federally funded early-childhood education program, which serves about a million low-income children:
“Currently, there aren’t any federal standards for Head Start that limit kids’ TV time, specify how much time they need to spend each day being physically active or the kind of milk that is served,” said Robert Whitaker, professor of public health and pediatrics at Temple University in Philadelphia, the lead author of the study, supported by supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through two national programs, Healthy Eating Research and Active Living Research.
So what is happening in many of these centers? Are the kids watching television? Are there play areas or designated outdoor space?