Are All Head Start Classrooms Created Equal?

Are All Head Start Classrooms Created Equal?

Terri SabolTerri Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy

Individual classrooms within the Head Start program vary in quality and don’t always reflect the school as a whole, according to a new Northwestern University study published in the American Educational Research Journal.  

Led by Terri J. Sabol of the School of Education and Social Policy, the researchers found that “classroom-level quality — such as class size, child-adult ratio, teacher education level, and the instructional support provided to children — can vary significantly,” Linda Jacobson wrote on EducationDive.

In fact, “funding decisions for 37 percent of the centers in our sample would have been different if more classrooms had been assessed,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers assessed the $9.4 billion Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which provide health and education to nearly 900,000 children from birth to the start of school. Nationwide, about 1,700 Head Start agencies program services to about 15,000 Head Start centers with more than 41,000 classrooms.

Early childhood centers are evaluated at both the federal and state levels by looking at data such as student-teacher ratios or teacher credentials and by observing how children and teachers interact in a random selection of classrooms.

But quality varies as much among classrooms within the same center as it does between centers—and those variations point to different problems Head Start centers need to address, the researchers found.

In addition, that variation has important implications for children, particularly in terms of instructional support. Children in the same center who have teachers with higher instructional support perform better compared to their peers in the same center with lower quality instructional support.

"We're sometimes missing the full story of what's happening in centers when we average (quality) and we don't think about the variation that exists within classrooms within that school," Sabol told Education Week. "If we really want to have clear targets for professional development, then we should consider how we understand kids' day-to-day experiences, which are ultimately happening in the classroom."

Sabol acknowledges that it can be costly and time-consuming to assess a larger sample of classrooms. In addition, Head Start is way ahead of the curve in terms of assessing, monitoring, and improving quality compared to other early childhood education programs and systems.

But it’s important to determine how many classrooms should be evaluated to get a more accurate reading on quality because the information will help determine whether a Head Start program will continue receiving funds or be rated accurately on the type of early learning experience a child will receive, she said.

In addition to Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy, the study was co-authored by Northwestern’s Emily Ross, a doctoral student in the Human Development and Social Policy program; and alumna Allison Frost (BS12), a graduate student at Stony Brook University.

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By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 7/30/19