Are All Head Start Classrooms Created Equal?

New study questions if some benefit children more than others

By Yasmina Vinci, Executive Director, National Head Start Association

Are All Head Start Classrooms Created Equal? This is the question posed in the title of a study released this month in the American Educational Research Journal. It is tied to a question families should ask when enrolling their young children in Head Start: will all Head Start classrooms benefit their children or are some better than others?

In the study, Terri Sabol, Emily Ross, and Allison Frost examine data collected in 2006 and 2009 as part of the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey. They find variation in quality between classrooms within the same Head Start centers that may raise questions about the current application of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) for Head Start monitoring and accountability. In practice, the full picture of Head Start quality is more complex.

Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, this new study reminds us how much quality has improved in the last decade, thanks to changes in legislation, performance standards, and practices governing Head Start.

What changes in the last ten years have strengthened Instructional Support in Head Start classrooms and improved consistency across programs?

Three factors stand out.

Teacher Education

In 2007, Congress authorized the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act and included a new stipulation about teacher education: by 2013, at least half of Head Start teachers should have a Bachelor’s or advanced degree. Head Start programs across the country took this mandate to heart. From 2007 to 2018, the proportion of teachers meeting the degree requirement leapt from 38% to 72%.

Professional Development

In the early 2000s, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) was primarily used by researchers to observe the quality of interactions between teachers and children in preschool classrooms but was beginning to gain popularity in some communities for identifying teachers’ professional strengths and struggles. Then, in 2011, the Designation Renewal System made CLASS an official tool for Head Start monitoring, with low scores compelling programs’ to compete for continued funding. Programs rapidly adopted the tool for internal monitoring and focused their training and technical assistance on any weaknesses the tool identified.

Intensive Coaching

Head Start programs received resources to develop local coaching and mentoring models in 2010 as part of the Head Start Early Learning Mentor Coach Initiative, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The lessons gained from this initiative informed the field at large, and when the Office of Head Start released revised Head Start Program Performance Standards in 2016 they included new requirements that programs have a “research-based, coordinated coaching strategy for education staff.” The standards further demand that programs assess all their teachers and ensure that teachers in need of “intensive coaching” receive support from expert coaches.

What Quality Improvement Looks Like

The new study focuses on the Instructional Support domain of CLASS. A report released by the federal Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation documented the improvement in mean CLASS scores for Instructional Support from 1.9 to 2.4 between 2006 and 2014; by 2018, the national mean Instructional Support score had climbed further to 2.96.

Between higher education requirements, program-wide CLASS training, and intensive coaching for teachers in need of support, it is no surprise to see the quality of Instructional Support in Head Start classrooms rise year over year. Yet Head Start is hardly a community to rest on its laurels. The Head Start Program Performance Standards call on programs to pursue Continuous Quality Improvement, and the Head Start community has and will continue to work tirelessly to lead the way on quality in early childhood education.

While a growing body of in-depth research is confirming this commitment, in the end, the value of Head Start is best demonstrated by the positive outcomes of the millions of children and families it has helped to succeed in school, and in life.

Yasmina Vinci serves as the executive director of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit organization acting as the voice for more than 1 million children, 200,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grantees in the United States. Prior to taking the helm of NHSA, Vinci served as the first executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (now Child Care Aware America), where she led NACCRRA’s transition from an all-volunteer association of fewer than 200 child care resource and referral agencies to a powerful national network of 860+ community-based organizations. Vinci’s advocacy on behalf of children and families is grounded in her 11 years of experience as a practitioner in the early childhood development field. At the beginning of her career, she served as executive director of an early care and education program serving low-income families, and then as development director for a cluster of non-profit child care centers.

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.