Studying the Head Start Advantage

01/11/2017 12:40 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2018

As we roar into 2017, the Head Start community is fueled by tremendous, bi-partisan support. A host of new studies continue to bolster the case for Head Start's comprehensive approach to early childhood interventions that target very young disadvantaged children and their families. And Head Start teachers, administrators and partners are embracing the continued pursuit of excellence and opportunities to magnify impact and maximize outcomes.

A recent report "State(s) of Head Start," in fact, graphically and strikingly reinforces that Head Start has lived up to its promise to deliver locally designed, quality early learning programs. The report asserts, unequivocally, that increasing access to the Head Start advantage is a winning proposition for vulnerable children, families - indeed the nation. And while the Head Start community wholeheartedly agrees that increased federal funding is critical to expanding access, we do take issue with the alleged "faults" the report finds with some programs: variation and quality - two of the very areas our community considers strengths.

As local programs, Head Start grantees are expected to adapt to their communities' needs and resources. The report views these variations in access, hours of service, teacher credentials, and more, as a weakness, whereas we view much of this variation as a strength. From the schedule of the program calendar to different comprehensive services provided for children and families, Head Start intentionally allows for variation in program features to best meet the needs of each unique community it serves. Local Head Start programs provide differentiated services while consistently maintaining high levels of quality instruction.

The report then goes on to cherry pick data and offer a narrow interpretation to assert that some Head Start programs are of lower quality. But the data that the report itself provides, in addition to several other metrics, only prove that Head Start is some of the highest quality programming available to young children. Specifically:

• The report narrows in on a single metric of quality, CLASS Instructional Support (IS) scores, which it uses to argue that there is a wide variation in program quality across Head Start programs. However, by the report's own graphs and analysis of the CLASS IS scores, most of these scores fall within a narrow band and represent little practical significance in variation of quality. In fact, most of the states the report designates as "low quality" based on this metric rank above the national average.

• There are two other domains of CLASS scores, Classroom Organization and Emotional Support, in which Head Start considerably exceeds the quality benchmark. The report touches upon these consistently high scores briefly, but ignores their strong evidence of quality. The report's own findings note that Head Start surpasses the research-based threshold for high quality in the Emotional Support domain in every single state. For the Classroom Organization domain, there is only one state that falls below this threshold with any statistical significance, while the rest reach this threshold or far surpass it.

• A recent report conducted by Mathematica analyzes quality in Head Start using ECERS-R, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised. The report finds that observed classroom quality in Head Start improved significantly from 2006 to 2014, based on the ECERS-R domains of Teaching and Interactions and Provisions for Learning.

• As individual states develop their own Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, or QRIS, the country has gained a new metric for rating and comparing all manner of early childhood education programming. In states that have implemented their QRIS, most Head Start programs are rated in the top-quality categories.

Metric after metric, report after report, researchers continue to find that Head Start provides high quality early learning opportunities to America's poorest children. Faced with the enormous task of providing comprehensive, educational and two-generation services to our nation's most vulnerable children, Head Start programs across the country continue to use creativity and innovation to meet and exceed expectations.

While we applaud the report's call for increased funding to expand access to Head Start, it is important to recognize the limitations of the analysis, particularly when it comes to comparing services state-by-state and providing a narrow interpretation of quality. Head Start serves our nation's most vulnerable children, and the depth and breadth of the program's impact cannot be understood by looking at just one metric of each category. The report's simplistic analysis of a complex program casts a negative light on our nation's strongest and most effective approach to delivering quality early learning services to the most vulnerable children and families. And, implying that Head Start is of low quality is directly at odds with the report's call for increased federal funding to expand access to more eligible children.