10/27/2015 06:24 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2016

Head Start Designation Renewal System 2.0

In 2007, Congress attempted to strengthen the accountability of Head Start programs by requiring open competition for Head Start grants in communities where local programs were not offering high-quality services.

Since 2011, the Office of Head Start has been implementing the Designation Renewal System (DRS) to put that goal into action, but the design of this system has led to a number of unproductive and unintended consequences.

This fall, as the third cycle of DRS closed, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) released Analysis of the Designation Renewal System: Cohorts One to Three, summarizing the outcomes for programs and communities thus far and highlighting opportunities to address those unintended consequences and make the DRS more effective. As the report concluded:

● The DRS still falls short of fully meeting the Congressional intent of targeting competition at poor quality grantees.
● Basic reforms are needed to make the DRS consistent, reasonable, and predictable.
● Conceptual reforms are needed to support programs in working toward high quality, not compliance.

Right now, the DRS requires programs to enter competition if they hit one or more of seven triggers. Overall, 74% of programs going into competition are currently getting their grants back at the end of a grueling 18-month process. Depending on what trigger caused them to compete, programs might be more or less likely than that to get their grant back. This confirms what the Head Start field knows to be true: the triggers for competition were designed in ways that catch low-quality programs but also catch other good programs.

One big problem is that anyone who fails at a single program standard - whether that's not having deep enough playground mulch or having real fiscal difficulties - has to compete. The other problem is that programs scoring in the lowest 10% on any area of a classroom observation tool have to compete, but the field as a whole is very strong in some of these areas and even the lowest 10% are above national averages for child care programs.

Fortunately, the Administration has always described the current implementation as DRS "1.0" and so, as we hosted a symposium in September about how to approach reforms, leaders from the Office of Head Start were present to hear the conversation and suggestions. I was delighted by the constructive energy of all our panelists and the participating local Head Start program leaders who brainstormed together about how to better meet the original intention of the DRS. Out of that symposium, we received two exciting new ideas for reform - ideas that will guide NHSA's advocacy about DRS in the coming months.

The first major obstacle to address is the CLASS 10% trigger. Currently, the Head Start programs scoring below set thresholds or scoring in the lowest 10% for one or more of the three domains of the CLASS tool are required to compete. The CLASS tool is used to assess teacher-child interactions in classrooms on a set seven-point scale, but because the 10% line is redrawn each year, programs are forced to aim for an unknown and moving target which is very disruptive to planning and innovation. Also, because the 10% cut-off has increased as high as 5.7 out of 7 in some areas, high-quality programs are getting caught in competition. Rather than have moving targets from year to year, it would be more effective to require programs to meet thresholds that are considerably higher than current ones and represent a consistent commitment to quality.

The second issue is that Head Start programs are also required to compete as a result of one or more deficiencies, instances of being out of compliance with even a single one of the Head Start Program Performance Standards. The discussion among programs at the symposium focused on how lack of consideration of the severity or frequency of these issues has led to programs competing over single instances of human error, even if they have systems in place that catch and address those events immediately. There is strong agreement in the Head Start community that in cases of severe or repeated problems, competition is appropriate, but intermediary measures should be in place for problems that are not severe, frequent, or systemic. Programs recommended the formation of a national committee to review deficiencies, create corrective action plans, and require programs to compete if the corrective action is not completed; if the deficiency is repeated; or if the deficiency is truly systemic or severe. These changes would allow grantees to focus on building quality through strong systems and continuous improvement rather than living in a constant state of anxiety.

The Head Start community embraces accountability, but recognizes that continuous quality improvement is as important to the development of strong federal policies as it is to their work with children and families. To allow high quality programs to focus on continuous quality improvement instead of working in an atmosphere of anxiety caused by a quirky and undependable system of compliance, NHSA welcomes ongoing discussion of "Designation Renewal System 2.0" and on how to further our national commitment to high-quality for every child and family in Head Start.

Learn more about NHSA's ongoing DRS Advocacy here.