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Differentiating performance across multiple indicators allows grantees to understand where they are doing well and where they need to improve, helping them focus their continuous improvement efforts. Ideally, the performance measurement system should allow OHS and grantees not only to see where their performance falls within the continuum of all Head Start grantees but also to compare their current and trend performance with that of “peer” grantees serving demographically similar children and families.

OHS should use performance data to identify those grantees that appear to produce meaningfully better results than their peers on specific outcomes, for specific populations, over a sustained period of time — as well as those demonstrating notable improvements in performance — in order to identify the practices that contributed to improved outcomes and disseminate information about those practices to other programs (see section 3). OHS should also share data with researchers to investigate relationships between grantees’ child outcomes and other indicators of program performance, grantee health, and compliance and determine which of these factors are most closely associated with better or improving child outcomes.

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The primary goal of any performance measurement system should be to encourage and support grantees to improve their own performance. But another key function of performance measurement is to enable oversight agencies to identify and take action to improve grantees that fail to meet acceptable standards of performance — whether in a specific domain or overall. These grantees should receive increased support and interventions, targeted to areas where they need to improve. Those that do not improve should be required to compete to renew their grants or, in the most severe cases, defunded. A robust performance measurement system would improve on the current DRS by providing a more performance-focused and accurate way to identify low-performing grantees than the current seven designation-renewal criteria do. Grantees could be identified as low-performing based on either unacceptably low levels of performance on specific performance indicators or a pattern of low performance across multiple indicators over time.

But OHS shouldn’t just use performance measurement to identify low-performing grantees. It should also develop criteria to identify and publicly recognize high-performing grantees, work

 

 

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with researchers and these grantees to identify the practices that contribute to their success, and disseminate those practices to the broader field. Grantees with a history of high performance should also be subject to less-frequent monitoring and encouraged to pursue opportunities to further enhance their impact on children and families. For example, high-performing grantees that want to adopt innovative approaches to improving child and family outcomes should be given flexibility to do so, provided they partner with independent researchers to evaluate the impact of changes in practice. Others could be encouraged to expand by applying for Head Start grants that come up for competition in nearby or similar communities. Through its system of Key Indicators, OHS has already taken steps to differentiate monitoring, allowing programs with a history of clean reviews and audits to be reviewed against a streamlined set of compliance measures (see box 5).28 A more robust system of performance measures would allow OHS to further differentiate monitoring and streamline requirements for programs that produce strong results.

In a well-designed performance management system, the vast majority of Head Start grantees will be neither low-performing nor high-performing, but will likely be identified as adequately performing. Performance measurement can support continuous improvement for these grantees by creating incentives to improve, identifying areas of strength and weakness, and helping them learn from and adopt practices from higher performers in the areas where they need to improve. OHS could also use performance measurement data to identify trends and common needs across grantees in order to inform training, technical assistance, and other grantee supports. For example, if data suggest that many grantees perform poorly on measures of children’s math development, the agency may need to increase resources for training in early math and monitor subsequent data on children’s math learning outcomes to assess the effectiveness of these investments.

 

 

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SECTION 3: USING RESEARCH AND EVALUATION TO IMPROVE PROGRAM OUTCOMES

At the research and evaluation level, federal policymakers need to support research that builds the knowledge base of what works and use this research to inform changes in program design and policies.

Over the past 50 years, research has dramatically expanded our understanding of young children’s learning and development, and of “what works” in educating them. But there is much that we still do not know. We know a lot about practices that improve learning in Head Start and other early childhood programs, but much less about how to best support teachers and programs in consistently implementing those practices at scale. To support programs in continuously improving outcomes, the federal government also needs to fund research to identify effective practices, address gaps in the existing knowledge base, and develop new tools to support implementation of effective practices at scale.

Evaluations and other forms of research do what performance measurement alone cannot. Performance measurement tracks progress toward intended program outcomes, but does not compare outcomes with outcomes from alternative programs or the status quo. Evaluations determine whether specific programs, interventions, or policies produce outcomes superior to alternative policy choices, or to no policy at all. Other forms of research increase understanding of problems or opportunities that policies seek to address. These forms of research can inform priority setting or decisions about policy trade-offs, as well as the development of new models or approaches that seek to improve outcomes or lower costs.

The federal government currently spends $20 million annually on research, demonstration, and evaluation activities related to Head Start. While this sounds like a substantial amount of money, it represented less than 0.25 percent of total Head Start spending in FY2014.29 To build the knowledge base for the field, federal policymakers should increase funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation to 1 percent of total appropriations. But how funds are used is as important as the amount. These additional funds should support research that is carried out in partnership with grantees to build knowledge that is responsive to grantee needs and is immediately applicable to improving quality and outcomes in Head Start settings. Federal research funds should support three primary activities:

1. Identification of effective practices of high-performing grantees and the testing of their replicability: As noted above, a robust performance measurement system should allow OHS to identify grantees that are producing meaningfully better results on specific indicators, for specific populations of children, over a sustained period of time. Federal research funds should support partnerships between these grantees and researchers to identify and understand the practices and program characteristics that contributed to the improved child and family outcomes and develop effective mechanisms to replicate these practices and characteristics in other Head Start grantee and early childhood settings.

 

 

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2. Measured trials of new practices and approaches: Dramatically improving results for Head Start children and families will require developing better, scalable approaches to teacher professional development, curriculum, family engagement, and a range of other key program practices and services. Innovative approaches are also needed to help Head Start grantees prevent and reduce chronic absenteeism, mitigate the impact of early trauma and toxic stress, and respond effectively to children’s challenging behaviors. A more robust system of performance measurement would allow grantees to demonstrate performance based on the results they produce, rather than on compliance with regulatory requirements, which often limit grantees’ ability to innovate. Once such a system is in place, Congress could give OHS the authority to allow groups of grantees with strong performance track records to experiment with new approaches and to work with researchers to evaluate those new approaches based on their results. Crucially, these innovative approaches should be chosen and designed by or with practitioners, in response to their own experience and data, and should be sustainable using existing Head Start funds. Using rapid iteration and a series of incremental improvements over time, researchers and practitioners can work together to improve the effectiveness of existing program practices and tools; develop new, more effective practices and tools; use real-time data to evaluate their impact; and refine approaches in response to data.

3. Development of valid and reliable tools to measure key outcomes: As noted above, the lack of valid and reliable measures in some key domains of program quality and child and family outcomes is a challenge not just for Head Start but also for the early childhood field as a whole. Federal research funds should prioritize the development of valid and reliable tools to measure:

» children’s social-emotional development;

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