Today the Department of Health and Human Standards released a notice of proposed rulemaking for revised Head Start Performance Standards. This may seem bureaucratic and wonky, but it’s a big deal. The performance standards are the regulations that govern the operation of Head Start programs–from governance, educational programming, to comprehensive and family services, to finances–and they haven’t been revised since 1998.
Because the standards are exceptionally comprehensive (the existing standards, which the proposed new ones seek to replace, include 1400 distinct provisions, and the NPRM document runs to more than 400 pages, including both the proposed new standards and a narrative explanation of the changes), I haven’t had a chance to fully review them yet, but here are a few quick highlights and takeaways:
Dosage matters: The big news item in the new proposed performance standards is an increase in the minimum required hours for Head Start programs. Currently, Head Start preschool programs are required to operate at least 128 days a year and offer at least a 3.5 hour day. Under the new proposed standards, that minimum would rise to 6 hours of programming 180 days a year (a full school-day and school-year)–more than double the minimum number of hours of Head Start programming that most preschool-aged kids would receive. Currently, only 43% of Head Start preschool programs offer at least this much service to children. Under the proposed standards, grantees would still have the ability to propose a “locally-designed program option variation,” which could include partial day programs if that would best meet the needs of their community, but these options would require approval by an HHS official at least once every two years. This is important because one clear takeaway from the research on both Head Start and other early childhood programs is that dosage matters. Shockingly, kids who spend more time in preschool programs learn more. And dosage is particularly important for the most at risk kids who start out further behind (and are less likely to get great support for learning in the time they’re not in Head Start or preschool). Shifting resources from lower-dosage to higher-dosage Head Start program options is a research-based choice that also reflects the realities of today’s working families. Other provisions in the new standards–such as an increased focus on tracking attendance and intervening when children are chronically absent–would also work to increase dosage. But while these policies are a good idea, they raise a lot of questions: Since most Head Start preschool programs don’t currently meet the new requirements, transitioning to them would be complicated and take time. Offering longer days and years also costs more–which means Head Start will either need more funding or to serve fewer kids. (The Obama administration’s FY2016 budget proposal included increased resources to expand the Head Start day, but those proposals have not been enacted by Congress.
Curriculum matters: As I and others have written, curriculum is a major weakness in many early childhood programs today, and the current Head Start performance standards may encourage programs to use broad, developmental curricula without the depth of content or structured supports for teachers to promote learning goals for young children. The proposed performance standards include significant changes to requirements for Head Start curricula, including a requirement that curricula be based on scientifically valid research, include an organized scope and sequence that is sufficiently content-rich to promote measurable progress towards development goals in the Head Start early learning framework, and that programs provide professional development, support for staff to effectively implement the program, and ongoing monitoring of how staff implement the curriculum. The proposed revisions also explicitly mention additional curricular enhancements to existing commonly used developmental curricula. I’ll have more to say about these requirements–what they accomplish and what they don’t–in the coming days and weeks, but for now let’s just say they’re very different from the language about curriculum in the current performance standards. Continue reading