Head Start:

Challenges in Monitoring Program Quality and Demonstrating Results

HEHS-98-186: Published: Jun 30, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ensures that Head Start programs are accountable for complying with laws and regulations and for achieving program purposes, focusing on: (1) the extent to which Head Start's mission, goal, and objectives provide an overall framework that emphasizes compliance with applicable laws and regulations and achievement of program results; (2) how well Head Start's processes ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations; and (3) how well Head Start's processes ensure the ability to determine whether program purposes have been achieved.

GAO noted that: (1) Head Start's mission, goal, and objectives provide an overall performance assessment framework that emphasizes compliance with applicable laws and regulations and achievement of program results; (2) Head Start developed this framework, which reinforces the program's accountability by linking specific program activities to its overall strategic mission and goal, in response to legislative requirements, as well as Head Start Bureau policies; (3) by specifying measurable program performance objectives, Head Start has the ability to answer questions about its compliance with regulations and whether it is achieving its purposes; (4) although HHS has processes in place to ensure that grantees comply with regulations, the implementation of these processes could be improved, according to GAO's review; (5) both HHS' and GAO's reviews, however, have identified concerns about the consistency of these inspections due to differences in reviewers' assessments of whether grantees are complying with some requirements and due to other factors; (6) in recent years, HHS has substantially strengthened its emphasis on determining whether it has achieved program purposes; (7) its processes provide too little information, however, about how well the program is achieving its intended purposes; (8) HHS has new initiatives that, in the next few years, will provide information not previously available on program outcomes, such as gains made by participating children and their families; (9) in the future HHS will collect such data from all Head Start programs rather than from just a sample of programs, according to agency officials, but it has no established plan or schedule for doing so; (10) moreover, although HHS' survey will allow Head Start to show whether children and their families have progressed in achieving program purposes, HHS' planned analysis of survey results will not allow it to determine with certainty that Head Start participation caused children's or their families' improvements; (11) instead of comparing survey results with those from a group of children and families similar in all respects except for their Head Start participation, HHS will compare results with other groups; (12) this approach will not allow HHS to isolate Head Start participation as a causal factor in children's and families' progress; and (13) therefore, HHS will not be able to determine program impact, that is, whether the program is making a difference in children's and families' lives.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2000, the Head Start Bureau (HSB) sent an information memo to program grantees requiring them to develop a system to analyze data on child outcomes that centers on patterns of progress for groups of children over time as they receive program services during the program year. Grantees must collect and analyze data on legislatively mandated indicators of progress in language, literacy, and numeracy skills for individual children, but are allowed to collect data on other child, family, and program outcomes as defined by the Head Start program.

    Recommendation: To ensure that individual Head Start grantees are held accountable for achieving program purposes, HHS should develop and implement a plan for assessing individual grantees' performance based on their achieving the outcomes associated with HHS' performance objectives. Such a plan could include, for example, guidance and suggested methods for grantees to use in assessing the degree to which children show improvement in critical outcome areas such as cognitive skills, literacy, and gross motor skills.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the fall of 2000, HHS contracted with Westat, Inc., in colllaboration with several other research firms, to plan and perform a nationally representative, longitudinal impact evaluation of the Head Start Program. After a pilot study, conducted in the spring of 2001, data collection will begin in the fall of 2002, with a final report due in December 2006.

    Recommendation: To determine whether the Head Start program is making a difference in the lives of those it serves, HHS should assess the impact of regular Head Start programs by conducting a study or studies that will definitively compare the outcomes achieved by Head Start children and their families with those achieved by similar non-Head Start children and families.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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