Mel Gravely
February-11-2019

New York Times: Recompetition is Helping to Increase Head Start Quality

The New York Times recently published a story called “Cleaner Classrooms and Rising Scores: With Tighter Oversight, Head Start Shows Gains,” in which it reports that Head Start has seen gains in program quality across the board “more than a decade after Congress imposed new standards” that required “a third of its partners… to compete for funding that was once virtually automatic.”

Of course, they’re talking about the Designation Renewal System, or “Recompetition,” which forces the poorest performing grantees to “recompete” for funding every 5 years.

While recompetition has certainly had its detractors, some of the statistics cited by the Times show real improvements in the quality of the programs since its inception, particularly among the weakest performers. For example:

  • The share of classrooms ranked good or excellent has risen more than fourfold.
  • In ‘instructional support,’ where Head Start was weakest… rose from 1.9 to 2.4 on a scale of one to seven.
  • The share of programs above a three — minimally acceptable — rose to 25 percent, from 4 percent.
  • Using a separate measurement tool, the average score on “teaching and interactions” rose over the same period.

So while the numbers look promising, the Times reports that the system likely isn’t solely responsible for those gains. For example, funding is up 18% per child in the last 5 years, and more Head Start teachers are holding bachelor’s degrees (up 73 percent, from 47 percent a decade ago.)

The additional funding and the push for better teacher training over the past decade came about despite an intense period of uncertainty, from the financial crisis, to federal sequestration, to a Congress often paralyzed with inaction and shutdowns. Luckily, Head Start has always done a great job of advocating for itself and the children it serves, and the additional funding is a great example of that. After all, it has had the practice, having survived the Congressional chopping block on more than one occasion.

Which brings me to the point I want to make in this blog: Recompetition actually came about as a solution to save Head Start. In the mid-2000s, the Head Start Impact Study was underway and early data began to show what would later be termed “Head Start fade-out” (or that early cognitive gains of Head Start attendees faded out by third grade). For some eager politicians, this was the fuel they needed to push Head Start to state control. Even those regularly championing Head Start couldn’t deny that the program could use some improvement.

So in 2007, they came to a bipartisan compromise (imagine that!): Keep Head Start in federal control, but implement a new system of monitoring that would allow the government to strip funding from poorly performing programs.

So while the designation renewal system hasn’t been universally popular (particularly those required to re-compete), the data shows that it does seem to be working as intended. Through bipartisan action, Congress put a system in place that will help the program survive its next political challenge (which seems inevitable).

We always want to hear your thoughts! How has recompetition impacted your program over the past several years? Do you think it’s helped you to increase program quality? Or is it more bureaucratic burden with little result? Leave your comments below!

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1 Comment

  1. Gloria Nealy says:

    There is stiil a significant number of young parents who are social media savvy who are unaware of Head Start programs. I meet them in grocery stores when I see small children and question them about the program.

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