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The Designation Renewal System: A Catalyst for Continuous Improvement

The Head Start Designation Renewal System (DRS) is an accountability system to ensure Head Start/Early Head Start (HS/EHS) grantees are delivering high-quality and comprehensive services. The DRS system has been successful in supporting quality improvement as Head Start grantees have engaged in a wide range of quality-improvement activities. Many HS/EHS programs dread the process. The DRS requires a systematic evaluation of your program, comprehensive improvements, and the writing of a thoughtful, well-crafted grant proposal. Yet, programs can survive, and even thrive during this process.

DRS and Data-Driven Improvements

The DRS is often perceived as a crisis. Rahm Emanuel noted, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The DRS can be an effective catalyst for improvement. An external evaluator can be a critical factor in a DRS process. An external evaluator offers a new perspective on your program and can objectively determine necessary improvements and provide resources, guidance, coaching, and accountability to improve your program. Head Start programs that focus on the DRS proposal as a learning opportunity are better situated for success.

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HS/EHS programs should emphasize their commitment to program improvement throughout the grant proposal. This commitment is demonstrated through the specific details of the proposed program. The commitment and strategies for improvement will be delineated in the second and third sections of the grant proposal. The assessment of difficulties, the implementation of data-driven improvement strategies, and a comprehensive discussion of such strategies are equally important. Data-driven improvements and systematic evaluation can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful proposal.

Prior to 2020, Head Start programs would be designated for re-competition if their Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) scores were in the lowest 10%. In 2020, the criteria were modified, and specific thresholds of classroom quality (CLASS scores) were established, a welcome improvement in the DRS process. Most programs currently have areas of concern in program operations. Each HS/EHS program participating in the DRS system has unique challenges and specific deficiencies. Still, there are three key strategies that can shape program improvement for all HS/EHS programs. Successful HS/EHS programs:

  1. Demonstrate their commitment to data and data literacy.

  2. Improve the effectiveness of the organizational structure by enhancing the skills of their leadership team and engaging their employees.

  3. Enhance the health and safety of the programs, with special attention to active supervision and positive discipline.

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Data Literacy

Sherlock Holmes famously said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Data literacy is the ability to read, analyze, and communicate with data. Data-literate employees ask important questions and measure what matters using the best available technology and powerful databases. Data literacy helps employees, at all levels, build knowledge, make decisions, and communicate outcomes.

Data literacy is more than a trend; it is essential for Head Start programs. HS programs are required to collect and use data to ensure that high-quality services are provided for children and families. Programs are also required to collect and use data to inform program strengths, needs, goals, plans, and progress. Such data need to be aggregated, analyzed, and compared to inform strategies and plans for improvement.

Direct Service Staff and Data Literacy

Staff providing direct services to children and families will need to be able to describe the data from their classrooms or caseloads and explain how these data shape practice. Teachers are often adept at individualizing learning opportunities for children yet are less adept at understanding the patterns of learning in their classrooms. Ensuring that teachers understand classroom patterns is an important responsibility of education supervisors.

Similarly, family workers will need to describe the data generated from their caseloads. The completion of family assessments is often a requirement of the position, and family workers routine report the percent of family assessments that are completed. But this does not measure what matters. Exploring data generated from the family assessment can indicate needs specific to the community, such as access to fresh produce or inexpensive transportation. Family workers can then demonstrate how their practices are shaped by data.

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Data Literacy and HS/EHS Management

Managers for each HS service area will need to know the specific data requirements for education, health, mental health, family services, human resources, ERSEA services and fiscal operations. Managers and leaders will also need to know the data on program performance, such as progress towards goals.

Education managers also need to compile data collected from CLASS, from observations on implementing the curriculum to fidelity, and on children’s challenging behaviors (e.g., behavior incident reports). Education management supervisors can then demonstrate how data on classroom quality and individualized coaching for teachers drive professional development for the program.

Education managers often report that a percentage of children are meeting expected gains in all domains of child development. Yet, this number does not illustrate differences between classrooms, between centers, between boys and girls, between speakers of English and those with a different first language, or between typically developing children and those with special needs.

HS/EHS leaders and managers should understand critical measurements of program quality: enrollment and attendance, measurements of classroom quality, child outcomes, measurements of the quality of family interactions, family outcomes, health outcomes, behavior incident reports, employee engagement, and fiscal expenditures relevant to stated goals. The understanding of these critical measures requires knowledge of both program-level data and how data differ between classrooms and sites. A deep understanding of data also requires an understanding of the factors that impact data and strategies to enhance or modify program practices.

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Data Literacy Bootcamp

Preparing your program staff for data literacy is a crucial component of improvement; beginning the process and detailing it in your grant proposal is essential. Data literacy is not achieved through a one- or two-day seminar. Nor is it an abstract skill learned from reading and viewing webinars. Data literacy requires a significant commitment of time, money, and energy. A nine-month seminar with shorter weekly meetings and assigned homework is more effective for developing data literacy than intensive workshops.

The best data literacy bootcamps include a combination of direct instruction, reading groups, practice groups within component areas, and practice groups across components. Data literacy boot camps ensure that the modeling of data analysis and presentation is accompanied by direct practice and constructive feedback. Effective data literacy bootcamps also offer time and space for structured self-reflection.

A data literacy bootcamp is a program-wide professional development initiative, and its success can be amplified through the hiring of a continuous improvement manager. The continuous improvement manager would generate and analyze reports from the enrollment management system, from CLASS scores, and from data on child and family outcomes. The continuous improvement manager would hold accountability meetings, as described in the Four Disciplines of Execution, which focus on weekly efforts and progress towards goals by through an examination of data. The continuous improvement manager would also hold monthly meetings to combine disparate data into a coherent narrative of program quality.

Program improvement through data literacy needs to be incorporated into the grant proposal. The description of strategies needs to include ways of measuring impact. A pre and post survey on employee attitudes and knowledge about data is an initial measurement, which can be accompanied by an objective evaluation of knowledge by the data literacy bootcamp facilitator. A review of monthly meeting agendas, notes, and data reports will provide another measure of the impact of data literacy on the provision of services to children and families.

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Passionate Leaders, Committed Managers and Engaged Employees

Head Start programs require an effective organizational structure with passionate leaders, committed managers, and engaged employees. The successful DRS process entails a clear and detailed evaluation of the strengths and unique contributions of each team member.

Effective Head Start leaders make decisions in collaboration with key staff, the governing body, and the Policy Council. Effective collaboration depends on active listening and respect. Collaborative leaders recognize contributions and provide opportunities and resources for individual development. Effective leaders are empathetic, passionate, hard-working, and self-reflective, inspiring their staff, families, and communities to realize their potential.

Many annual personnel evaluations focus on how well responsibilities are met, resulting in a gap between measuring activities and evaluating outcomes. An evaluation that examines outcomes and impact will be more helpful in choosing pathways of improvement.

While there are multiple leadership assessment tools, the 360-degree assessment provides a wealth of information that can be used to structure an effective professional development plan. The 360 assessment begins with a self-assessment and follows with the same or comparable questions from other sources, including direct reports, peers, the Board of Directors, and community partners.

Effective evaluation of leaders and managers will emphasize three factors:

  1. Data: What is collected, and how is it analyzed, used, and communicated to improve the component?

  2. Outcomes: What do the outcome data indicate about the impact of the program on children, families, communities, or staff?

  3. Employee Engagement: Research continually points to the importance of managers in employee engagement and retention. Ineffective managers greatly impact employee engagement. According to Gallup, managers are key to employee engagement. Employees connect to the organization’s vision and values through the manager. Management interactions with the team drive performance and retention.

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Employee Engagement

Gallup, the world’s foremost expert on employee engagement, defines employee engagement in direct contrast to employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction is based on the type of job, salary, and working conditions, among other factors. Meanwhile, employee engagement is the involvement, passion, and commitment that employees bring to the workplace. An analysis of employee engagement helps to measure and manage employees’ perspectives on the crucial elements of the workplace and job performance. Research on employee engagement can discern whether workplace practices are resulting in performance improvements and positive child and family outcomes.

There are five key strategies for enhancing employee engagement:

  1. Measure employee engagement—and the Gallup Q12 is an effective and efficient way of collecting data about what matters

  2. Have growth-oriented conversations, including regular one-on-one meetings

  3. Provide clear communication, including construct feedback

  4. Focus on employee well-being and development

  5. Have strengths-based conversations

The enhancements to the leadership and management team need to be incorporated into the grant proposal, typically in section four, which details plans for a highly qualified workforce. The improvement of the leadership team and manager competency can be accomplished through targeted, specific, research-based assessments. Such assessments can then inform targeted and relevant professional development plans. Relevant and professional development includes direct instruction, reading groups, webinars, and role play among leaders as well as specific component-area learning. The HS/EHS program should specify how surveys of direct reports, review of component outcomes, and self-assessment will be used to guide evaluations.

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Health and Safety of HS/EHS Children

Improving the health and safety of children in the HS/EHS program often rests on two critical components: active supervision and positive discipline.

Active Supervision

Active supervision, which ensures that all children can be seen at all times and that no child is ever left alone, seems both basic and easy. However, as HS/EHS teachers can attest, active supervision is not that easy. There are children who love to hide, who love to wander, and who run love to run. Strategies for improving active supervision must begin by ensuring that active supervision is everybody’s responsibility, and responsibilities must be assigned in conjunction with training and specific monitoring duties.

Shaping the physical environment is a key component of active supervision. Stop signs can be placed along walking paths, at intersections and corners. The visual reminder to stop and count is simple but effective. Assigning children the role of “counter” provides teachers with time to count, while children are practicing early math.

Within the classroom, the physical environment can be structured to make it easy to view all children while also providing enough space for exploration and opportunities for learning. Examples of Head Start and Early Start can be found at Spaces for Children.

Daily monitoring by education management is necessary. Randomly assigning other staff (including the executive director, fiscal team, and custodial staff) to conduct daily checks of active supervision meets monitoring needs and brings the entire Head Start team closer to children.

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Effective Strategies for Children with Challenging Behaviors

Early childhood educators often describe the difficulties of classrooms, which exacerbate the low wages. Head Start teachers are highly educated (most teachers have a B.A. degree) and yet are not compensated well for either their experience or education. In a Head Start classroom, teachers work with children who have challenging behaviors, and high-quality resources (including specialists) are often limited in the classroom.

Teachers are often expected to plan and individualize learning opportunities, collect data on their children’s learning, and prepare other reports (not related to children) during naptime, while soothing children to sleep.

Struggling with their own financial stress, work overload, and challenges of dealing with children with multiple adverse experiences, teachers can slide into harsh behavior, yelling, and non-gentle touch. Most teachers begin each day with positive intentions and love for their children. The overwhelming majority of teachers use positive discipline and create welcoming environments, but sometimes a teacher “snaps.” Teaching young children is difficult and labor intensive; the intrinsic reward of helping children learn needs more extrinsic and concrete support.

Background checks, detailed explanations of the teachers’ code of conduct, and teachers’ signatures occur prior to employment, and pre-service training days reiterate positive discipline. When there is an event, immediate removal from the classroom, suspension during the investigation, and termination are appropriate reactions.

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Programs with concerns about the classroom environment will need to describe a multi-layered approach to positive discipline in their DRS proposal. Multiple layers would entail:

  1. Small-group training (incorporating role play) for education staff on a curriculum dedicated to children’s social emotional development.

  2. An overview of managers, leaders, and other HS/EHS workers that details typical milestones of child development and positive discipline.

  3. Additional resources, including curriculum kits and materials to help children identify and manage their feelings.

  4. Classrooms with cozy corners for both teachers and children, which include dolls, comforting pictures, and materials from home.

  5. A process for teachers to call for immediate assistance when they begin to feel stressed; such a process should not have negative consequences.

  6. A coaching process that is collaborative, structured, and results in measurable improvement.

  7. A wellness culture goes beyond providing information or creating staff well-ness days. A wellness culture supports physical wellness (access to fitness exercises, workshops on health nutrition, and mindfulness practices). This culture needs to be modeled throughout the program. Managers should not be visibly stressed, and leaders should not “complain/brag” about non-stop working.

The DRS provides an impetus for improvement, and HS/EHS programs have implemented multiple strategies to grow and excel. Throughout this process, HS/EHS programs that focus on improvement when writing the proposal are better situated for success. A description of improvement strategies along with a detailed plan for measuring such improvements on a systematic and regular basis are essential parts of the grant proposal.

Dr. Cathleen Armstead, the owner of Sunshine Nonprofit Solutions, provides strategic planning, consulting, and grant writing services to nonprofit organizations working with children and families. With twenty years of experience in the Head Start/Early Head Start world, she continues to advocate and work for social, economic and racial justice.