Head Start, the nation's biggest preschool program that was teetering on the brink of extinction in the early 2000s, is getting better, thanks to bipartisan support, The New York Times reported.
More than a decade after Congress imposed new standards on Head Start — a program with a $10 billion budget and covering nearly 900,000 low-income students — a third of its partners have been forced to compete for funding once virtually automatic, and the share of classrooms ranked good or excellent has gone up more than fourfold, the Times reported.
"The quality of Head Start has definitely improved," Margaret Burchinal, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Head Start authority, told the Times. "That's a big jump because there are so many classrooms involved. To make that much improvement across the whole country is pretty amazing."
According to the Times, Head Start's hard-fought gains are an example of bipartisan progress.
As Head Start struggled with a wide variation in quality in the early 2000s, Congress in 2007 passed a bipartisan law that retained federal control while requiring periodic audits of classroom quality, with groups in the lowest 10 percent forced to compete to keep their grants.
"The fact that both parties were behind it meant you couldn't just end it on a whim," ex-Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who pushed the overhaul, told the Times. "Programs understood they had to step up their game."
The monitoring began in 2012 with an observational tool called CLASS, which is devised to measure teaching quality. In essence, it gives the government a report card on each of its nearly 1,600 Head Start programs, the Times reported.
Now, a nationally representative sample of programs shows rising CLASS scores, especially in "instructional support," where Head Start is weakest.
On a scale of one to seven, average scores rose to 2.4 in 2014, from 1.9 eight years earlier. The share of programs above a three — minimally acceptable — rose to 25 percent, from 4 percent, the Times reported.
With an alternative seven-point tool, the average score on "teaching and interactions" rose over the same period.
"There's an increase in classes in the midrange and a decrease in classes in the low range," Louisa Tarullo of Mathematica Policy Research said.
But CLASS measures teachers, not students, and still unknown is whether better instruction will improve the children’s long-term performance, the Times reported.
Christina Weiland, a preschool expert at the University of Michigan, called the scores "a great sign" but warned "they're not strongly predictive" of how children do in school.
"That's why it's hard to say it's a resounding success."
Ron Haskins, a former aide to President George W. Bush who is now at the Brookings Institution, also is cautious.
"I'm skeptical because so many people over the years have made dramatic claims for preschool programs that didn't pan out — we need to show the program is having a long-term impact on test scores and graduation rates," he told the Times. "Those are the things that count."