Release of New Head Start Performance Standards

The Department of Health and Human Services has released the new Head Start Performance Standards. Department officials say that the[…]Continue Reading

Head Start program. Teacher reading a book with a class.

The Department of Health and Human Services has released the new Head Start Performance Standards. Department officials say that the new standards represent the biggest changes made since they established the standards in 1975.

Even without new regulations, Head Start has changed a lot since its 1965 inception. The program has placed more and more emphasis on expanding learning opportunities, with a resulting demand for better-prepared teachers.

Overview of New Standards

The new Head Start performance standards further strengthen curriculum requirements for children. They also increase expectations around professional development for teachers, and ramp up the program’s efforts on behalf of children with disabilities, homeless students, and English language learners. Overall the new Head Start performance standards ask centers to focus more closely on the core practices. Those practices are in the areas of teaching and the learning environment, curriculum, assessment and parent engagement.

More Hours Per Year

The biggest change is the expansion of the amount of time children spend in Head Start. Today, Head Start centers are required to provide services for 3.5 hours per day and 128 days per year. A third of the one million-plus children enrolled in Head Start attend centers that offer only half day programs.

Under the new Head Start performance standards, centers are required to serve children for 1,020 hours per year. The draft standards had proposed requiring programs to serve three- to five-year-olds for at least 6 hours per day and 180 days per year. The final standards now simply define full school day and full school year services as 1,020 annual hours. This lets programs design their schedules to meet children and community needs as well as align with local school calendars.


Of course, the expansion will cost money and Head Start is only able to meet the 5-year goal if funding is available. Congress appropriated $294 million in FY 2016 to and President Obama asked for an additional $292 million in 2017.

Both the House and Senate appropriations bills increased funding for Head Start, but not at the level required for moving to full-day programs. Head Start has long enjoyed bi-partisan support, but the constraints of the Budget Control Act and its threat of sequester keeps budget expansion at a minimum.

Improved Coordination

The new standards also call for better coordination between Head Start and other systems and initiatives, including special education, state pre-K programs, and elementary schools. They also included requirements for coordination with state and local Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) and state data systems.

Head Start programs are required to take an active role in promoting coordinated systems of comprehensive early childhood services. Some who comments on the draft standards are concerned about the requirement to work cooperatively with state data systems. The National Head Start Office knows  it has work to do in supporting local programs while protecting the privacy of families.

Better Transition to Kindergarten

There’s also a requirement to strengthen transitions from Head Start to kindergarten. This includes equipping parents to be advocates for their childres. It also means fostering better communication and joint PD between Head Start staff  and local school counterparts. There is some tension between Head Start and the local schools systems, some stemming back many years. Efforts to improve communication are important on both sides. It is especially beneficial to small Head Start programs without the resources to provide adequate PD. I would hope the Department of Education reinforces with states and districts the need for cooperation.

Curriculum Framework

In terms of curriculum, Head Start programs are expected to implement curricula that aligned with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five. And as appropriate, they should align withstate early learning and development standards. Such curricula need to be sufficiently content-rich to promote measurable progress toward development and learning outlined in the Framework, The Framework outlines what young children should know. Its intent is to assist programs in their efforts to create and impart stimulating and foundational learning experiences for all young children and prepare them to be school ready.

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