Steps Forward for Head Start

September 21, 2016
Kids drawing at a Manassas Virginia Head Start center

Mark GreenbergActing Assistant Secretary Mark GreenbergMark Greenberg, Acting Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families

In the last 51 years, Head Start has served more than 33 million low-income and vulnerable children and families across the country. The Head Start program has led the way in understanding the crucial role of high-quality early childhood education, comprehensive services, parent engagement, and taking a whole family, two-generation approach to improving the lives of the families it serves. Strengthening Head Start has been central to the Administration’s goal of ensuring children have access to high-quality early learning opportunities.

Last week, we took a critical step to elevate the quality of Head Start programs by issuing the first wholesale revision to the Head Start Program Performance Standards in the program’s history. The final rule incorporates feedback from over 1,000 comments received from a broad range of stakeholders including national and state associations, early childhood education researchers and think tanks, and Head Start program staff and parents. The new standards describe what is needed to deliver comprehensive, high-quality individualized services to support the school readiness and healthy development of children from low-income families.

These new Head Start Program Performance Standards reflect best practices and the growing body of research on what works in early education. They set an expectation that programs operate for a full school day and full school year over time so that teachers have the instruction time they need and children experience less summer learning loss. They raise educational standards, curriculum requirements, and professional development expectations to ensure effective teaching in Head Start. They support the educational needs of dual language learners with research-based best practices. They affirm the critical role of parents in the Head Start program and strengthen parent engagement services. They raise the quality of comprehensive services, including health and mental health, and improve services for children with disabilities. And they reduce regulatory burden on programs, so Head Start programs can focus on providing high-quality services and pursue innovation.

I want to highlight three things that I think are particularly important about this effort.

First, at ACF we’re committed to being learning and evidenced-based, which means ensuring that we’re using the best available research, and effectively communicating it to our grantees. This is often challenging because we’re never at the end state of knowledge – research findings can be less clear than we’d like, or highlight the need for further study. But it is crucial that programs are guided by the most up-to-date practices from research, and the new Head Start Program Performance Standards reflect this.

Second, the standards send a strong message about the importance of Head Start programs transitioning to becoming full school day, full school year programs. The research is clear about this being important and the right next step for Head Start.  If money wasn’t an issue we would have wanted to implement full school day and full school year requirements more quickly, but we recognize the importance of increasing funding to support expanding the duration of Head Start programs so we’ve allowed more time for programs to meet the requirement. We are committed to working with Congress to ensure there is sufficient funding for these quality improvements. In FY 2016, Congress appropriated $294 million increase the number of children attending Head Start for a full school day and school year, which provides an important down payment on meeting the new duration requirements in the standards. Building on this progress, the President’s FY2017 budget requests an additional $292 million to expand the number of children attending full school day and school year Head Start programs.

Third, these regulations add requirements in some areas, reduce requirements in others, but overall significantly reduce the number of specific mandates for grantees. Our goal was not just to reduce the number of regulations – to ensure a consistent level of high quality across the country, it’s essential to have a core set of requirements. But as my colleagues and I have visited Head Start programs over the years, we’ve repeatedly heard great frustration with excessively detailed and complex regulations. We believe the new Head Start Program Performance Standards embody a shift from prescriptive compliance based regulations to performance oriented requirements.  This shift allows flexibility and opportunity for innovation in meeting unique child, family, and community needs.  Needlessly prescriptive regulations can be an enemy to innovation.  In any federal-to-local program it’s essential to be thoughtful about what needs to be a requirement, what needs to be an encouragement, and what needs to be left to local discretion. That’s what we’ve done here.

As attention to and commitment to whole-family approaches grows in human services programs, and recognition of the need to incorporate brain science research in human services operations builds, the leadership role of Head Start will be critical. We view the implementation of the new Performance Standards as a key part of our commitment to a stronger Head Start program.

Learn more about the new Head Start Program Performance Standards Visit disclaimer page

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