Obama's Head Start Changes Not Entirely New, But Still Encouraging To Early Childhood Experts

President Obama's high-profile announcement Tuesday that Head Start pre-kindergarten centers can no longer count on the automatic renewal of their funding only highlights the implementation of a law that has been on the books since 2007. But early childhood experts say the move marks a positive step in righting the Head Start program notorious for its inconsistency.

"It introduces in principle a healthy dose of accountability into the Head Start system," William Gormley, co-director of Georgetown University's Center for Research on Children in the United States, said of the changes. "Head Start has the potential to move disadvantaged children in a positive direction. It can't inoculate them from challenges they face in the inner city and elsewhere, but it can point them in the right direction. Our public schools build on the success of the Head Start program."

As Obama announced at a Yeadon Regional Head Start center in Pennsylvania Tuesday morning, instead of having their funding renewed automatically, "for the first time in history," Head Start centers will have to prove their effectiveness under seven criteria.

"We're not just gonna put money into programs that don't work," Obama said. Centers that rank among the bottom 25 percent in teaching benchmarks defined by the administration will have to compete for their funding with other providers serving the same market.

"We can't wait to give more of our youngest children the same basic opportunities we all want for our kids. That's why today, I'm announcing a new rule that will increase the quality of Head Start programs around the country," Obama said in a statement. "After trying for months to work with Congress on education, we've decided to take matters into our own hands. Our future is at stake. Our children deserve action. And we can't wait for Congress any longer."

While Obama framed the changes as part of his campaign to fight against a do-nothing Congress, they are, in fact, a result of a law passed in 2007 that gave the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to enforce competition between Head Start centers.

Now, four years later, the executive branch has initiated the law's implementation. This fact did not escape Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who heads the House of Representatives' education committee and took the opportunity to release a statement blasting Obama for choosing "to repackage a bipartisan Congressional initiative intended to help disadvantaged children into a partisan ploy for the campaign trail."

Still, several education advocates interviewed are optimistic about these changes.

"For centers that are not holding up their end of the bargain, those centers will now be held accountable and will either need to quickly ramp up their quality or will find that others in this jurisdiction will take over their grants," said Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation's early childhood initiative. "But it's not something you're going to see overnight."

The focus on early childhood education is crucial, advocates say, because the achievement gaps and academic deficiencies highlighted by K-12 standardized tests begin long before the first day of kindergarten.

"Colleges are offering remedial classes because high school students aren't ready, high schools are trying to make up for ... middle schools," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a Tuesday call with reporters. "If we don't do something different, we're just going to keep ... these insidious achievement gaps."

Head Start, a program run by the Department of Health and Human Services, began in 1965 as part of the war on poverty. According to data from 2010, Head Start centers across the country serve about 900,000 largely low-income students per year at the cost of $7 billion in federal funding.

"Head Start has the potential to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students, hispanic and white students, between middle-class and disadvantaged students," Gormley said. "That potential will only be realized if we improve the performance of the weaker Head Start agencies -- and, if necessary, turn to other grantees to take their place."

A recent study of Head Start, known as the National Head Start Impact Study, found that Head Start's measurable impact on student learning as assessed by test scores faded by the time students began first grade. The new regulations seek to remedy that effect, in addition to Head Start's reputation for spotty improvement.

But questions remain about whether the latest regulations can help Head Start alumni retain the program's benefits down the line. Since 2009, Head Start has used the CLASS system to evaluate student-teacher interaction. Jens Ludwig, an early childhood expert based in the University of Chicago, said she wonders whether having Head Start centers compete on the basis of their CLASS ratings -- in addition to other scores -- is the best measurement.

"We would all feel better if we also had some additional evidence that linked high class scores in Head Start to the lasting Head Start program impacts," Ludwig said. "They should not get too locked in to any particular aspect of the accountability system and should be open to thinking about what goes into that."

The new regulations come along with other Obama administration changes to early childhood education, including last week's creation of an office for early childhood education within the Department of Education and a Race to the Top competition for pre-K. Yet, some of Head Start's weakest aspects remain unaddressed.

Under current funding levels, Guernsey said, Head Start only serves about half of potential enrollees. Further, Guernsey added, since states don't have much authority over Head Start administration, there is little coordination or structure between individual centers.

Guernsey added that the new rules have generated 16,000 public comments and controversy in the early childhood education community.

"Head Start centers are worried about these changes," Guernsey said. "For those centers that have for decades just assumed that they will get their grant, they can no longer assume that. We're going to have to make sure that they've got their books in order, their teaching is in high quality, all those seven criteria."

But some are less confident about the effects of these changes.

"Head Start should be dismantled, not merely rearranged," Joy Pullman, research fellow at the Heartland Institute, said in a statement. "Every study of it, including the federal government’s own reviews, has concluded the $7 billion-a-year program contributes nothing to children’s academics or well-being."