3 Big Changes Coming for Head Start

Head start program education policy

he Head Start Program from the Department of Health and Human Services has been seeking to bridge the preschool divide for low-income children and families since 1975. Since then, the ways the program functions have only once been addressed in a wholesale way—when the law was reauthorized in 2007. However, that reauthorization mainly left alone how Head Start programs are actually governed at the individual level.

Later this year, a complete rewrite of the Head Start Program Performance Standards goes into effect, enacting change for the 1 million students in the nation’s largest preschool program.

Head Start itself operates differently from the nation’s public education system. It’s more like a charter school organization, and is administered by the federal government at the local level through grant-winning organizations. There is no district or state oversight, so what Washington says goes—which is why these new standards are so groundbreaking.

The Office of Head Start says these new standards are needed to better reflect the changes that occurred in early childhood education over in the past 40 years, incorporating developments in research and understanding of how the brain develops. In short, Head Start needed a reboot in order to compete with state-run preschool programs and programs offered by private groups.


The major change: More school

For most people, the main change that stands out within the new standards is the drastic increase in the amount of time students spend in the Head Start Program. Grant-receiving programs must offer services for at least 6 hours per day and 180 days per year, up from only 3.5 hours and 128 days per year. Research shows that half-day preschool is simply not as effective, which has prompted Head Start to mirror the whole-day schedule followed by most public school districts.

Of course, this means an additional cost for the government—estimates indicate $1 billion will need to be added to Head Start’s current budget of nearly $10 billion to fully implement the increase in seat time by 2021. Although the Obama administration’s FY 2017 budget request includes this number, it is still under review by Congress, with no timetable or guarantee for passage.


Streamlining the program

According to the Office of Head Start, the new set of standards is more than 30% smaller than its predecessor, which contained 1,400 different standards. There are a few different ways in which this streamlining is expected to be beneficial.

First, it should be easier to run a program without so much regulation. Some freedoms have been granted to local programs regarding how they organize themselves and which approaches they take to educate children. If programs want to deviate from accepted norms, though, they will need to make a research-based case for efficacy—but at least this framework allows for some flexibility.

Head Start hopes that having fewer regulations will make it easier to attract organizations that want to apply for grants, which has been a challenge for the program in recent years.

Attendance and suspension

Believe it or not, Head Start never stipulated attendance requirements in its standards until now. Obviously, the more a student attends school, the better the chance of a positive outcome. Now, Head Start providers must monitor attendance on a per-student basis and seek to remedy the causes of chronic absenteeism for students who miss four straight days by reaching out to their families and offering support services aimed at getting them back in school.

There are also new limits on how the practice of suspension can be used—specifically, it must be very rare or banned completely. If still used as a disciplinary device, suspension must be implemented for the safety and welfare of the other students and include support from mental health counselors and parent outreach. Additionally, expulsion is clearly banned in the new standards, which lines up Head Start more closely with current education practices.

These are only the most significant changes to the Head Start Program. For greater depth, consult the standards themselves and this Q&A sheet from the Office of Head Start.

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