09 Aug

A Head Start problem so clear that even senators — bipartisanly — can see it

In the middle of what may be the country’s most bitterly divided July since Gettysburg, Jeff Merkley actually wrote the Obama administration a bipartisan letter. The Oregon Democratic senator joined with Republican colleague Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and their letter drew signatures from 17 other senators – 12 Democrats, four Republicans and one independent, which in our current political atmosphere makes this practically a spiritual moment.

And the letter even made sense.

In a recent policy change, the feds have ruled that any Head Start program scoring in the bottom 10 percent in any of three areas has to recompete for its authorization. This turns the evaluation process into a game of Musical Chairs – except that, since nobody knows where the bottom 10 percent line will be, nobody knows how many chairs there are – and sends programs into months of uncertainty and distraction before 83 percent of them get reauthorized anyway.

Even if your goal is to make sure that four-year-olds don’t get too comfortable, CLASS – the Classroom Assessment Scoring System – seems like a clumsy approach.

Continuing to use the 10 percent standard in the Designation Renewal System, wrote the senators to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, “will continue to cause undue and unnecessary burden on grantees, result in wasteful use of Head Start grantee resources, and fail to … serve as a tool for improving the quality of Head Start services in a transparent, reliable, valid and timely way.”

Not to mention that “The operational stress this creates is felt at every level and has contributed to staff turnover in many communities.”
Suey Linzmeier, who runs Head Start of Yamhill County in McMinnville, can testify to that. Recently, her consistently successful program had to recompete because not all staff members had been tested for tuberculosis –although the county health department said there was no TB in Yamhill County. As a result, Linzmeier said last week, the program “had to do a lot of paperwork, get letters from people and devote a lot of staffwork” to get recertified.

“Head Start supporters in Oregon,” she said about Merkley’s effort, “very much support the letter.”

Oregon has more than 16,000 kids in Head Start, all around the state. The various programs, Linzmeier points out, try to work together and learn from each other, which can get complicated when nobody wants to be in the bottom 10 percent – even by a tiny amount.

In Pennsylvania, the Family and Community Christian Association Twin Creeks Head Start is now recompeting for its grant after scoring 5.31 in Classroom Observation, with a cut-off of 5.36.

“Our score is still a quality score,” said executive director Judy Ventresca. “We missed it by 5/100th of a point.”

That’s one thing in the Olympics. It’s something else in undermining a 40-year-old program.

Especially when the standard is dubious.

Alan Guttman, at the Center for Technology in Education at Johns Hopkins, has been telling this to anyone who would listen – and a lot of bureaucrats who won’t.

“They’re ignoring their own data,” Guttman said last week, “and their own rules on how the data should be used.

“The data is a tool for providing a way for programs to improve. Using it as a way to evaluate an entire program is not a valid use.”

That was, Guttman says, clear when the legislation was passed. It’s become even more true since the classroom observation times have been cut in half, to two 20-minute observations per teacher – a way, D.C. officials say, to include more classrooms in a program’s evaluation.

Those kind of snapshot checks, Guttman points out, can have distortions – a teacher can have a bad day, a student can have a bad day, the weather might be lousy. It’s no way to make a judgment of five one-hundredths of a point.

But while nobody’s been listening to him, says Guttman, “A letter from 19 senators will have an impact” – certainly making it to the secretary’s desk. The signatures run from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to conservative Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas, and include seven members of the Senate committee that oversees the department and the program.

“We’ll be pushing the department,” said Merkley recently. “The evaluations are very subjective; two or three people might have different reactions to the same class. The evaluations have to be designed in a substantially different way.”

Head Start doesn’t come up for congressional reauthorization until 2018. But Merkley figures that with the right encouragement, the department could change things before then.

If 13 Democratic senators, five Republicans and Bernie Sanders can sign the same letter, maybe anything’s possible.

NOTE: This columnn appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/7/16.