The New Head Start Performance Standards are 621 Pages Long — Here’s What You Need to Know

Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the final version of new Head Start Performance Standards, the rules that govern the operation of Head Start programs. The final standards are in many ways similar to draft standards issued last June, but they also incorporate key changes in response to over 1,000 comments that the Department received from stakeholders.

Here are the key things you need to know:

  • Increased learning time: Like the draft, the final standards increase the time that preschoolers spend in Head Start, but they provide more flexibility around that increased time requirements in several ways:
    • The final standards require Head Start preschool programs to serve children for 1,020 hours a year (rather than the 6 hours and 180 days a week described in the draft). That’s about 6% less time than proposed in the draft, but more importantly, it provides programs more flexibility around how they structure the day, week, and year.
    • Increased hour requirements are phased in: programs must provide longer hours to 50% of preschoolers by 2019 and 100% by 2021.
    • Programs can offer fewer than 1,020 hours if their schedule is designed to align with local public school systems and provides at least as many hours as the public schools require for first graders. That’s important because many Head Start programs are operated by or in collaboration with school districts and many states require less than 1,020 hours of classroom time a year for elementary students.
    • Head Start grantees can apply for waivers to offer fewer hours if doing so meets community and parent needs and adequately supports children’s learning and progress.
    • The Secretary can push back on requirements if Congress fails to appropriate sufficient funds to implement them without reducing the number of children served.
    • The rule clarifies that programs that currently offer full- or extended-day programs by “blending” funds from Head Start and other sources can count any hours in which children receive services that meet Head Start performance standards, regardless of the funding source.
  • Parents: The final rule restores a number of provisions related to parents’ role in program governance as well as a requirement for programs to establish family partnership agreements with children’s families. It retains a focus on the importance of building parents’ knowledge and skills to support children’s development, and emphasizes that helping parents support their children’s development and learning is the primary focus of parent engagement.
  • Health: The final rule expands requirements for Head Start programs to address public health issues, including tobacco abuse, obesity prevention, exposure to lead, and mental health.
  • Education: The final rule maintains and clarifies key provisions of the draft performance standards that more clearly defined what quality education looks like in Head Start programs, focusing on the four key areas of teaching and learning environment, curricula, assessment, and parent and family engagement.
  • Dual language learners: The final rule maintains and clarifies a variety of provisions related to how programs serve dual language learners. These requirements — which reflect both best, research-based practice and statutory requirements in the 2007 reauthorization— will require significant increases in capacity to serve dual language learners.
  • Data and continuous improvement: The final rule maintains a new set of provisions from the draft rule requiring programs to implement systems of data collection and use to support ongoing continuous improvement. Moreover, use of data to assess program practices and support ongoing improvement is embedded more deeply throughout the standards, including governance, attendance, curriculum, and professional development. Programs that receive waivers to offer fewer than required hours must also use data to assess how well their program supports progress in children’s early learning outcomes.

Overall, these standards remain a significant improvement over the previous standards. They are considerably streamlined, clearer and easier to understand, reduce emphasis on creation of “written plans,” and eliminate overly prescriptive requirements or provide programs with greater flexibility in a number of areas. At the same time, however, they impose a variety of new requirements on programs — some of which are essential to improve the quality of children’s learning experiences, and some of which probably aren’t.

Moreover, the real impact of the standards will depend on how they are implemented, both at the program level and in the systems the Office of Head Start develops to monitor whether grantees meet the standards. In light of this, and the authority given the Secretary to scale back increased time requirements, the next administration will play a major role in determining how these standards actually play out in practice.

In subsequent blog posts, I’ll address some broader implications and takeaways for the early childhood field, dive into some specific components of the final standards, and highlight implications and opportunities for funders and other actors.