A new beginning for Head Start

Monday, October 4, 2010

RESEARCH SHOWS that early-childhood education helps poor children succeed in school -- but only if it is of high quality. So the Obama administration is right to shake up how Head Start programs are funded. Instead of funneling money in perpetuity to programs with little or no regard to effectiveness, new rules would identify low-performing providers and make them compete for federal funds against those that can offer better outcomes.

Last month, the Department of Heath and Human Services proposed regulations that would require the bottom 25 percent of Head Start organizations -- which can include nonprofits, municipalities and school districts -- to reapply for grants. Tough benchmarks on management, health and safety, and financial accountability will be imposed. Most welcome are plans to measure how well teachers interact with children, using a respected classroom assessment developed by University of Virginia researchers. New training and technical assistance will be provided in what HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called "raising the bar on quality" on Head Start programs.

The changes are in keeping with the Obama administration's welcome shift, in programs such as Race to the Top, from funding by rigid formulas to rewarding need and merit. The regulations, published in the Federal Register and subject to public comment, recognize the failings of Head Start and are long overdue. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office documented how poorly performing grantees continued to receive federal funds even as they failed to improve. A recent evaluation of Head Start found that its academic benefits mostly dissipate by the end of kindergarten because of the spotty quality of Head Start programs. Nearly 1 million children look to Head Start for tools to succeed; the new rules should help ensure that more of those children get what they will need.

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