Friday, November 14, 2014

The Head Start Survival Guide: Practical Tips for Making It in a Republican-Controlled Congress

Last week the US Senate was flipped from Democratic to Republican control.  This means that in January 2015 Head Start will be facing a more difficult environment in Congress than we have experienced the past few years. Here are some things you need to know to prepare for the new Congress and what it will take for us to survive:

Seek Bipartisan Support For Early Learning. 

In many states, including Washington, Republican leaders have partnered with Democrats to make new investments in high quality early education. Several “red states” like Oklahoma, Georgia, and North Carolina have made major commitments to early learning. This has not been true in DC since Obama was elected in 2008. There is always an occasional outlier that steps forward but these are usually very moderate Republican members and they tend to not be on key committees or in leadership positions.  Just to put things in perspective, however, there are 435 members of Congress and 100 US Senators but there were only 3 House Republicans listed as Co-Sponsors on the Strong Start for America Act and there were no Republican Senators. Given this environment, it will take strong advocacy and outreach from the Head Start community to develop the kind of powerful conservative champions for Early Learning that we have in state governments.  

Reach Out To New Committee Chairs In The Senate.   

The House Education and Workforce Committee will continue to be led by Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and the House Appropriations Committee will continue to be led by Rep. Harold Rodgers (R-KY). Both of these guys have shown some support towards Head Start, with Rep. Rodgers seemingly in our corner when it comes to funding. But the Senate will now be a much different environment. Already we know the likely chairs of four of the most important Committees that impact Head Start directly:

  • Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will chair the HELP Committee. Typically, he has been seen as a pragmatist and has shown some support for Head Start. During the last Head Start reauthorization in 2007 he authored the Centers of Excellence.  This year he has called for Congress to fund the Centers of Excellence initiative. This seems like something we can get behind and should advocate for. Recently, however, he has not been particularly friendly toward the program and has proposed block granting Head Start to state governments.  

  • Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) will take the reins of the Senate Budget Committee previously held by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).  Senator Sessions has frequently criticized Head Start and says he plans to introduce a budget blueprint that will lower the amount of funding available to programs that serve low income children and families.  He has been a supporter of sequester and publicly opposed the two year budget peace agreement between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Murray (D-WA). Remember, next fall the sequestration kicks in again for fiscal year 2016. This is a huge problem and it is made considerably worse if the new Senate budget committee chair thinks it is a good thing.  
  • Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) will take over the full Appropriations Committee. He has been somewhat sympathetic to Head Start in the past and relied on Democratic support to get elected. Our hope is that he will be an advocate for Head Start.
  • Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) will likely take over the Senate Labor HHS appropriations subcommittee. This has not been confirmed but this is tough loss as he will replace one of Head Start’s greatest champions, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). So far Senator Moran has been supportive of finding common ground. For example, he voted for the omnibus bill that ended the government shutdown. 

Prepare Our Own Forward-Thinking Proposal. 

It isn’t likely that we will see any Head Start Reauthorization bills moving out of the policy committees over the next two years. For one thing, Senator Alexander seems interested in focusing on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher
Education Act before getting to Head Start. Rep. Kline also seems to have priorities other than early learning. I think there is a sense that members of Congress want to see how the Designation Renewal System (DRS) plays out and what the new program performance standards will look like before launching into a new Head Start reauthorization. I wouldn’t be completely surprised, however, if some conversations start taking place about the future of Head Start.  It will be incumbent on all of us to put forward a proactive and positive agenda. As you probably know, NHSA is in the process of gathering input from the field and talking with folks inside and outside the beltway about charting a course for Head Start.  We need to continue to support this work.

Turn the Page on Old Battles, Heated Discussions and Fears

Still not happy with the DRS process? Concerned about how the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships might work? Worried about the Obama Administration’s pre-k agenda? All of that needs to be a thing of the past. Yes, we absolutely have to speak up when we have real issues with the Obama Administration or our champions on the Hill. Holding the Obama Administration accountable is important, but we also need to recognize that the situation is different now. Come January 2015 we are not having a discussion about how the Early Head Start-Child Care partnership might work, but if there will actually be any money at all for Early Head Start or child care.  We are not discussing whether pre-k grants may displace Head Start but whether there will any new funding for early learning at all. We may face the real possibility of budget cuts and the loss of services to children and families. We need to put aside the battles of the past few years and heated discussions with our most enduring champions because we simply cannot afford to have them anymore.     

Find Common Ground With Our Critics.   

We are not going to survive simply by changing our messaging and communications. In
other words, we can’t simply go into Republican offices and talk about the return on investment and hope to make it out of this situation alive. We really need to think about ways we can meet our critics in the middle where we can and where it might improve the experience for the children and families we serve. Some examples may include the following:
  • We should work with the Office of Head Start to streamline the standards and look for efficiencies where we can find them. You and I know there are too many standards and that the amount of paperwork is getting in the way of the actual work of providing high quality early learning to our most at-risk children. It’s ok to admit this and still support the wide array of services we provide to children and families. In fact, one could argue that trimming the standards will actually help us do our job better.
  • We need to get behind real reforms that will strengthen the quality of teaching and experiences for our most at-risk children and make sure they are long-lasting. We should be open to learning from the latest research being conducted on top-flight pre-k programs around the country. Some of them are getting better results when it comes to child outcomes. Head Start should be open to making some changes based on the research while still delivering the health, nutrition, and family partnership work that we know our families need to succeed. Some possible things for us to look at could be everything from looking at more full-day options and hours for children, increasing the pay and qualifications for our teachers and classroom staff, and learning from the research on how to maximize teacher-child interactions.
  • We need to embrace child and family outcomes.  Taxpayers need to know that if they trust us with their dollars we are producing clear, measurable results. Just meeting the performance standards is not enough. We heard recently from a well placed Hill staffer that if the Head Start community doesn’t come up with clear outcomes, Congress will do it for us.  Supporting child and family outcomes should be fairly easy as programs are already doing a lot of this, if not necessarily being held to it by the Office of Head Start.  Now we need to do the hard work to figure out how to actually make this work.
  • We need to find a reasonable role for state partnership and collaboration. I have been pretty clear that block granting Head Start is a bad idea. Block grants lead to lower funding and less local control and responsiveness. Don’t believe me?  See TANF or the Child Care Development Block Grant. I am also skeptical about how states will do managing Head Start when they already have so much trouble trying to make the child care subsidy system work effectively. Having said all that, we should look for creative approaches which could include expanding the role of the State Head Start Collaboration Office, data sharing, shared professional development, and alignment of monitoring, Training & Technical Assistance, and quality rating systems.

It’s Show Time: Get Your Tap Shoes On

Over the next two years we might be in for a bumpy and challenging ride. It’s conceivable that a Republican-controlled Congress will mean opportunities for the kind of strong bipartisan support for early learning in DC that we have seen across the country in state houses. Head Start used to enjoy this kind of bipartisan support as well. It was President George Bush Sr. that really got behind Head Start with some real dollars.  It may even lead to some interesting policy proposals and thinking and challenge us in good ways. But we also need to face the reality we are in. We are likely facing a time where funding for Head Start will be harder to come by. It may mean that we will battle cuts to the program and the real possibility of services to children and families being rolled back as we saw recently a result of the sequestration. As a member of the Head Start community you will likely be called upon more frequently to share your story with your member of Congress and to be a vocal and persistent advocate for the program. We have been here before and survived, and we will survive again if we stick together and continue to be champions for our most at-risk children and families.


Joel Ryan
Executive Director
Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Head Start: From “Friends” to “Modern Family”



This week the Emmys were held in Los Angeles.  Back in 2002 Friends won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.  Critics of Head Start are a little bit like the college friends you had in the 90’s that keep debating whether Ross should have ended up with Rachael. It’s time to move on.  This year’s Outstanding Comedy Series winner was “Modern Family”.  It’s time to look at the “Modern” Head Start.

For the past couple of years, pundits and some members of Congress have slammed Head Start for being ineffective. Some have called for major reforms, while others have suggested that Head Start should be simply defunded.  To make their case they point to the Head Start Impact Study—a national evaluation of the program that intended to look at children who were assigned to Head Start in 2002 and compared them to children who were not assigned to the program. It concluded that while there were some benefits to children in Head Start they seemed to “fade-out” by 3rd grade. It is this 2002 evaluation of Head Start that critics like to point to. As you can imagine, much has changed since then except that Conan O’Brien is still on TV (he hosted the Emmys in 2002). 

I continue to maintain that the study is flawed because of the large percentage of children who were supposed to be in the control group but instead found a way to enroll in Head Start (can’t stop determined parents). Others have suggested that the poor quality of elementary schools that Head Start children attended is mostly to blame. I don’t pretend to be a researcher and I don’t know the answer to these questions with any certainty. I just know it is time to move on. 

The Head Start Impact Study was based on a cohort of children in 2002. That’s 12 years ago, people.  So let’s put the study behind us for a minute and deal with current day reality. A lot has happened from 2002 to 2014—the explosion of social media, two wars, smart phones (sorry Blackberry), and the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl. I even retired my old TV this year. It took 3 big guys to carry it out and I replaced it with a flat screen with HD. When I asked the homeless shelter guys what they planned on doing with it, one of the guys looked at me and said “sir, no one has a TV like this anymore. We’re just going to recycle it.”
Head Start has changed quite a bit as well. It is simply not the same program it was in 2002.  Here are just a few examples:
  • During the Bush Administration Head Start teachers received a steady diet of language and literacy professional development. The increased focus appears to have improved instruction and outcomes for children.
  • In 2007 the Head Start Act was signed into law with several major reforms, including a requirement that half of all lead teachers must have at least a BA degree.  In 2002, only 25% of Head Start teachers had at least a BA degree, in the 2006—2007 school year immediately prior to the Head Start Act being signed into law it was about 45%, and now in 2014 more than 67% of lead teachers have at least a four year degree. Quite a huge change. 
  • The Obama Administration has also increased the quality of Head Start in three very big ways.
 o   They got rid of many low performing programs through a process called the Designation Renewal System.  Just in the last few years 48 programs have been replaced with new providers;

o   They instituted a new teacher-child assessment system developed at the University of Virginia. It measures teachers on how well they support a child’s emotional needs, how well they manage a classroom, and the quality of their instructional interactions. This new tool has led to an increase in the quality of teaching and better outcomes for children; and

o   They reoriented Head Start toward ‘School Readiness’ in both the more ‘academic’ areas like literacy and math and in the social-emotional development needed for school success.  Programs establish school readiness goals, create individual plans for each child to meet those goals, and track how well each child is progressing.

You might wonder whether these reforms have led to better outcomes.  Beyond the Head Start Impact Study, the government also reviews Head Start’s quality through the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey called FACES.  Researchers evaluated Head Start in 2003, 2006, and 2009. The 2003 cohort would most closely match the children evaluated by the Impact Study in 2002.  

Steve Barnett from the National Institute of Early Education Research, an occasional critic of Head Start, did an analysis of the data and found that the language and literacy gains for children from 2003 compared to 2009 were sometimes two or more times as large. In other words the program got a heck of a lot better between 2002 and 2009. 

In another recent evaluation of Head Start in 2012 researchers at Mississippi State University looked a large program in Mississippi.  Using the state’s educational data warehouse they compared children that attended Head Start to their peers that did not attend.  There were more than 12,000 children in this study. Unlike the Impact Study, they did not have to worry about the control group being contaminated because they had data on actual children and knew which child went to which program.  They then looked at how these Head Start children were doing in 3rd grade. What they found was amazing and completely contrary to what the Impact Study evaluators found:

  • Head Start children were 18 percent less likely to be retained than the comparison group. 
  • Head Start kids were 26 percent less likely to receive special education assistance than the comparison group.
  • Head Start children were 2.24 and 2.31 times more likely to be proficient in language and writing than the comparison group, respectively. 
  • Similarly, the data show that Head Start children twice as likely to be proficient in math as the comparison group.
The authors conclude that “the results clearly show that Head Start has a significant impact in the first years of elementary education.”  

I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.  Champions and advocates of Head Start should continue to push for making the program better. There are clearly things that everyone agrees will improve the program. For instance, we should:
  • Increase the number of full day/full year programs;
  • Further strengthen aspects of the classroom experience for children;
  • Reduce red tape by updating and reducing the number of program performance standards and making sure they reflect current research.; 
  • Ensure that our teachers and staff that work for Head Start are paid like the professionals they are.
Critics of Head Start should stop citing the Head Start Impact Study as the latest research on Head Start. It is completely outdated and not a fair assessment of where the program is in 2014. Unless you are the person still dancing in your kitchen to Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Herre” or you keep wanting to recall the first the American Idol contest winner—Kelly Clarkson in case you forgot (does anyone still watch American Idol anymore?).  Even my mom finally threw out her VCR and now has a DVD player. Head Start has changed considerably since 2002. It is a much better program.  The next time someone talks to you about how Head Start doesn’t work and how the benefits “fade out” tell them to get out of their time warp, put down their VCRs and flip phones, and break it to them that Jay Leno is no longer the host of the Tonight Show.  

Before policy makers make decisions based on a study done the year KISS had their last performance, they should visit today’s Modern Head Start.   I think they’ll be impressed with what they see.  

Joel Ryan
Executive Director
Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cuts to Food Stamps will affect Washington Families



The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, helps put food on the table for more than 46 million people every month, which translates into about one in every seven Americans. The program gives the opportunity for families to receive monthly benefits that allow them to purchase food they might not otherwise have the means to afford. 86% of the SNAP recipients are below the poverty line, and over half of the recipients are children. The food stamp program was expanded during Obama’s stimulus package, however, there are now efforts to cut the number of people who would be available to receive food stamp benefits. 

The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to considerably cut the spending on the SNAP program by more than $33 billion. This would cut 11% from family’s benefits for an average family of four. The change will not only eliminate the amount of funding to families, but also make it more difficult for families to be accepted into the program. The "Ryan budget" would cut $133.5 billion in funding over the next ten years by creating a block grant system that gives each state a lump sum amount of funding. 

There are many risks involved with cutting the budget, such as increased number of starvation, homelessness and decreased number in those who can receive benefits. Eliminating this amount of funding would put families and their children at risk for not receiving the nutrition necessary in order to live a healthy lifestyle. In Washington State, 1.1 million people would be affected by the Ryan budget cuts and would decrease $2.71 billion in funding for the SNAP program. Families who currently receive help from the SNAP will suffer from not being able to afford food for their children and other family members.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Visit to World Forum

By Joel Ryan, WSA Executive Director

I just returned from the World Forum on Early Education and Care in Honolulu, Hawaii, where we were asked to present on our WSA Parent Ambassadors program. It was a very interesting and enriching experience. On the first day I traveled with Yasmina Vinci, NHSA Executive Director, Joan Lombardi from HHS, and the person who oversees all of the reviews to visit Head Start programs on the island. Initially it was a bit of shock—I knew there were poor families living in Hawaii but I was surprised at the depth of poverty. On one highway we saw families living on the side of the street in tents. As you can imagine, the cost of living is very expensive and the service jobs people are doing don’t pay very much. I heard from several of the Head Start staff I met with that meth use is really high and that Hawaii is a stopping over point for drug runners trying to get to the mainland. I found that the Head Start programs were excellent. We visited one co-located with a transitional housing complex and another one at a huge (like old style Chicago) housing project where a community action agency delivered services. Not surprisingly I found that the Head Start folks in Hawaii are facing the same problems with the child care subsidy system in their state that we are facing here. One program shared some great work they are doing with the CLASS and beyond. They have a very extensive master teacher mentoring program and have seen their CLASS scores move way past the national average as a result. They said they would be interested in doing a webinar with programs in Washington.


I found that while the sessions at the World Forum were interesting, it was much more about the people. One woman I met from Afghanistan was defying the Taliban by starting a school for women and their children. Empowering and educating women in that country is still not acceptable to many elements. She spoke about setting up a school in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where the children were sleeping on the same ground as snakes and scorpions. To illustrate the degree of poverty she told a story about how a father sold one of his children for a few bags of rice. In those schools, the most dangerous job was being the bus driver – the school bus is constantly under threat of bombing or shooting or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


The other speaker I found really interesting was a Roman Catholic Priest that lives in Zambia. He focuses his time on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and spoke about the large number of children in Africa that are living with AIDS but not able to access the cocktail drugs. The vast majority of children with AIDS don’t receive help and are basically told to go home and die. One of the points he was making is that while many adults did not receive treatment, children seemed to be last to get any help. He also mentioned that with the recession, foundation support has been leveling off and in some places declining.


There were many good sessions dealing with impact on children living in war torn countries such as the middle east, Sierra Leone, and other dangerous places. Yasmina did a workshop on all the Head Start models around the world which there are many. I did a workshop on our association’s Parent Ambassadors Program. I was teamed up with a speaker from Zimbabwe that spoke about organizing parents in his country—something akin to a policy council. I heard good feedback and there was interest from a Canadian delegation and Fiji to get a program started in their countries. (Yes, I immediately agreed with them that it would make a lot of sense for me to travel with several directors to Fiji to teach them how to get it up and running). The conference was also a lot of fun too. There was an international dance, good discussion groups, and some time to just talk and meet people from all over. I signed our association up to be involved in issues around peace building and advocacy so we can continue to learn and model our work.


When the conference wrapped up I spent a few extra days with my wife and daughter and we had a great time. We ate shaved ice at some well known places, saw sea turtles and dolphin shows, and visited many beautiful beaches. Of course my daughter only wanted to play in the pool. She discovered that the slide was fun and I had to do that with her for about 4 to 5 hours one day which explains the tan and sunburn I have right now. (Katy said she really had a lot of sympathy for me) All in all it was an eye opening trip. I think my biggest take away was simply that the world is a lot smaller than we think. While the level of child poverty is not anywhere near the other countries that were present, there are people all around the world that care about children and their health and development.