After 50 Years, Head Start Struggles With Uneven Quality | KERA News

After 50 Years, Head Start Struggles With Uneven Quality

Dec 14, 2016
Originally published on December 14, 2016 12:10 pm

For more than 50 years, Head Start has provided free early childhood education and other services to low-income families. But new national research, out Wednesday, shows great variation from state to state in how well the program works.

The study comes from the National Institute for Early Education Research, and it examined Head Start programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

It focused on quality and ranked states accordingly. Kentucky and Vermont came out the best, while 18 states ranked very poorly: Arizona, Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

"This is the first time anyone has looked at funding, services and quality state by state, says Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers University who directed the study. The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which also supports education coverage at NPR).

Among the key findings, Barnett says, is that "programs that offered more hours had lower quality." Poor-quality programs, he explains, are simply trying to do too much with too little.

Head Start is an $8.2 billion federally funded program that serves more than 900,000 children.

The study also looked at teacher pay. In more than 20 states, the study found, Head Start teachers earn less than $30,000 a year on average. That level of pay, Barnett says, makes it difficult to attract and keep good teachers, especially those with college degrees.

The research also examined the percent of eligible children served, finding that it varies widely state-by-state. Some states, like North Dakota, the study says, are serving nearly all of their eligible preschool children, while others, like Nevada, don't reach even 20 percent.

Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the National Head Start Association, which represents local organizations, says the group does not dispute the overall findings. But she raised concerns about the ranking and rating of states. "I think it's dangerous," she said. "To compare is almost unfair."

Aman says Head Start is a national program, so of course there are going to be differences among states. But ranking them, she argued, does nothing to address a key finding of the report: that Head Start programs in general don't get the funding they need to do the job they're asked to do.

Steve Barnett agrees that the program needs more funding, but says the point of the study was to show that some programs are hurting more than others.

"Local providers have to make decisions about: Do we serve more children or fewer children? Do we offer more hours or fewer hours? Do we pay teachers more or less?" he says. "And we can't do all those things."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Head Start has been taking care of kids for a long time. This is the federally funded program that's provided free early childhood education to kids from low-income families and those living in poverty. For 50 years, the program has been trying to give children a solid foundation for later school success. But new national research shows there's a lot of variation from state to state as to how well the program really works. NPR's Claudio Sanchez explains.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The National Institute for Early Education Research looked at Head Start programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

STEVE BARNETT: This is the first time anyone's ever looked at the funding, the services and the quality state by state.

SANCHEZ: Steve Barnett of Rutgers University directed this study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also supports NPR. The study focused on quality and ranked states accordingly. Kentucky and Vermont came out the best. Eighteen states ranked very poorly. The key finding...

BARNETT: Programs that offered more hours had lower quality.

SANCHEZ: Barnett says poor-quality programs are simply trying to do too much with too little. Take teacher pay - the best teachers cost money. But in more than 20 states, Head Start teachers earn less than $30,000 on average. That level of pay has made it difficult to attract and keep good teachers, especially college-educated teachers.

Then there's the percentage of eligible children served. It varied widely state by state. The findings show that some states, like North Dakota, are serving nearly all preschool children living in poverty, while others, like Nevada, don't even reach 20 percent.

Sally Aman of the National Head Start Association, which represents local programs, does not dispute the study's overall findings. But all this ranking and rating of states bothers her.

SALLY AMAN: I think it's dangerous. You know, to compare is almost unfair.

SANCHEZ: Aman says Head Start is a national program run by local people, so of course you're going to find disparities among states. But ranking them does nothing to address the report's main finding, she says. Head Start programs in general don't get the funding they need to do the job they're asked to do. The whole point though, says Steve Barnett, is to show that some programs are hurting more than others.

BARNETT: Local providers have to make decisions about do we serve more children or fewer children? Do we offer more hours or fewer hours? Do we pay teachers more or less? And we can't do all those things.

AMAN: That is a fair assessment, yes. Programs are often caught between a rock and a hard place. And the challenge is how to stretch the dollars without impacting the quality of service.

SANCHEZ: Today, Head Start serves about 900,000 children, which is only 40 percent of all eligible children. Barnett and Aman agree the federal government needs to come up with more money to fully fund Head Start. The price tag - at least $20 billion. That's more than double what the program gets now. Twenty billion dollars might be far-fetched. But Barnett is at least calling for the creation of a bipartisan commission to look at the unevenness in the quality and reach of Head Start. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.