The State(s) of Head Start study, produced by Rutgers University’s National Institute of Early Education Research, placed the Land of Enchantment at the bottom on conceptual, in-depth teaching, which was measured through classroom observations during the 2014-2015 school year.
NIEER director Steve Barnett said the problem is tied to poor training: Only 36 percent of New Mexico’s Head Start teachers have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 73 percent nationally.
“If you are not a well-educated, well-prepared teacher, it’s almost impossible to do this,” Barnett said of the focused, individualized instruction that helps young children build a foundation for success.
Head Start targets kids most in need of such support.
The $8 billion program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides preschool instruction for low-income children, along with family health and nutrition services.
Head Start schools are operated separately from districts under the administration of social service agencies. They serve over a million students each year – including about 9,300 in New Mexico, which was allocated $78 million for Head Start in 2015.
Studies have shown that Head Start and Early Head Start can help children perform better in school, avoid risky health behaviors and stay out of jail, Barnett said, but only if the instruction is rigorous.
“It can’t just be babysitting,” he said. “It’s the quality of the one-to-one and small-group interactions with the teacher that is the primary driver of the cognitive part of the success, and that is the part too many programs aren’t getting. New Mexico is at the bottom of that pile.”
Many states are struggling to offer good Head Start instruction – NIEER rated only Vermont and Kentucky “significantly above threshold” for instructional quality, and 18 states were significantly below, including California, New York, Texas and Arizona.
Low wages are a major factor nationwide: Head Start employees earn about $24,000 less than their counterparts at public schools, on average, which drives high turnover.
In New Mexico, the earnings gap is more than $10,000. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes an average of $31,858 at a Head Start job and $35,247 at Early Head Start, versus $45,683 in public schools, NIEER reported.
And the average salary across all Head Start assistant teachers is $16,052, with full teachers earning $26,524.
Hailey Heinz, senior policy analyst at the University of New Mexico Center for Education Policy Research, agreed that poor pay is a critical problem.
“It is hard to keep a high-quality workforce when wages are as low as they are,” she said. “This is a workforce that we have historically undervalued. It is only recently that we have come to understand how valuable those early years are for success in school.”
Heinz added that she wasn’t surprised by NIEER’s findings because New Mexico is behind many states for bachelor’s degree attainment and a number of industries struggle to find qualified employees.
Education, in particular, has been hard hit.
Across New Mexico, a severe teacher shortage is stressing districts, which are holding job fairs and fighting for substitutes.
Amanda Gibson-Smith, president of New Mexico Head Start Association, said she thinks the shortage is impacting Head Start sites, particularly in rural areas.
“People don’t go into the field because they hear about the poor pay and the long hours,” she added.
Gibson-Smith stressed that quality instruction is important for all students and said coaching and mentorship opportunities offered by the Office of Head Start can go a long way to get new teachers on the right footing.
“I want high-quality teachers,” she said. “We have to have people who are qualified.”