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Head Start Proposals Draw Cheers, Cautions

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Early-childhood advocates are praising a proposed top-to-bottom revision of the rules governing Head Start, the federally-funded program that serves a million children from low-income families and pregnant women and children nationwide, even as they raise questions about whether the budget resources would be available to bring those plans to fruition.

Head Start officials see the proposal, which was seven years in the making, as a way to cut the bureaucratic burden that has developed over the program’s 50 years in existence. They also want to incorporate the latest knowledge about what best prepares children for academic success as well as social and emotional health.

But the changes—the most noteworthy of which calls for increasing the length of a Head Start operation's day and the number of days it must operate per year—would come with a hefty $1 billion price tag. Currently, a Head Start program must operate for at least 3.5 hours a day and 128 days a year; the proposed changes would increase that to at least 6 hours a day and 180 days per year.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal would increase Head Start’s funding to cover both the school day and year changes and to pay for other Head Start initiatives. But, the spending increase is far from guaranteed.

Head Start is currently funded for about $8.6 billion. The president’s fiscal 2016 budget requests $10.1 billion for the program.

Makeover Plan

When Congress reauthorized Head Start in 2007, it directed the agency to review and revise its performance standards. The comment period ends in mid-August, and it could be months before final regulations are issued. Among the most significant revisions on the table:

Length of Day and Year
Current: Head Start programs must operate 128 days during a school year, for a minimum of 3.5 hours each day
Proposed Change: Head Start programs would operate 180 days during a school year, for at least 6 hours each day.

Revised Regulations
Current: There are more than 1,400 program performance standards, some of which are redundant or overly prescriptive, according to Head Start.
Proposed Change: The streamlined proposed standards have been simplified and better organized.

Strengthening Education
Current: The document that outlines what young children should know and be able to do was last revised in 2010.
Proposed Change: The new document, called the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework Ages Birth to Five, is based on the latest research on child development.

Comprehensive Services
Current: Head Start distinguishes itself from other early-childhood programs through its focus on physical and mental health services and family engagement.
Proposed Change: Head Start plans to maintain this focus, with attention on streamlining and better coordination.

Professional Development
Current: Professional development relies on “intermittent workshops and conferences” that don’t have an effect on long-term practice, according to Head Start.
Proposed Change: Many teachers would receive intensive coaching in best practices.

Local Flexibility
Current: Head Start providers had limited ability to modify a program to meet local needs.
Proposed Change: The new rules would increase opportunities for Head Start grantees to modify policies if they can show those modifications work best for their communities.

“Congress is not in an additional funding mood,” said Laura Bornfreund, a deputy director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, based in Washington. “What if Congress doesn’t make that appropriation? Are they going to take [program expansion] out? Are they going to make that optional? Are they going to ask centers to try to figure that out?”

Long in Coming

The proposed revisions, which were mandated by Congress when it reauthorized Head Start in 2007, were released just a month after the program celebrated the anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing the bill that created it as part of the War on Poverty.

By and large, the proposed changes appear to have met Head Start’s stated goals, say those who have examined the document outlining them, which was released June 18 and is open for public comment through August 18.

“They have remodeled Head Start, but they’ve still done a good job of honoring the stuff that Head Start cares about—the work with families, the parent engagement, the comprehensive services. I think they did a really good job of strengthening the classroom experience for students,” said Joel Ryan, the executive director of a Head Start advocacy group for programs based in Washington state.

Ms. Bornfreund agreed that extending the length of the Head Start school day and year is “an important change to have in there, but definitely the funding and the support for programs is needed to make that shift well. Just adding a few more hours just doesn’t mean there’s going to be high-quality learning going on.”

Head Start officials say they are prepared to phase in some requirements if the rules are made final before the money to implement them is available. The final rule can end up with flexibility for Head Start providers to take a year to phase the other major requirements, such as extending the school year and day.

One element of Head Start that has not been touched is the requirement for low-performing grantees to compete for continued funding.

Department on Board

The funding question has not dimmed the enthusiasm from Head Start officials over the proposed revisions. In the proposed rules themselves, and in accompanying summaries and webinars aimed at providers, they acknowledged that the program had gotten too prescriptive, making it difficult for Head Start providers to focus on the issues that are most meaningful for children.

“We certainly know that some of you are saying, ‘It’s about time you got these out,’” Head Start Deputy Director Ann Linehan said in an webinar for Head Start grantees to announce the proposed rules.

“In this case, procrastination served us well, because it gave us time to really read all the results of the research,” she said. “This set of proposed rules really reflects the best.”

Along with the proposed rules changes, Head Start also revised a document that explains what children should know and be able to do from birth to 5 years old. What is now called the “Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework” was last revised in 2010, and only focused on children ages 3-5.

In an interview with Education Week, Head Start Director Blanca Enriquez said this new document will help programs align their curricula so that they’re best preparing children for school. And, unlike the other proposed changes, the framework does not have to go through a public comment process.


Another less-noticed change has to do with the authority so-called “supergrantees” have to manage their “delegate agencies.” Some large agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Office of Education or the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, contract with smaller agencies that actually provide the direct services to children.

Currently, if a grantee moves to terminate a contract with a delegate agency, Head Start rules require a number of different steps and appeals processes that involve federal officials. The proposed rules would cut the federal government’s role in that element of delegate management.

Noting another change that has flown under the radar, Monica Ortiz, the executive director of the Maryland Head Start Association, noted that the proposal would eliminate a requirement that Head Start programs have parent committees. There are other committees that have parent involvement, such as policy councils, but Ms. Ortiz said the new rules would need to ensure that a broad cross-section of parents still have an opportunity to be involved in the program.

“How do you ensure your policy council is fully representative of the full group of your parents?” she asked.

But the proposed changes to the lengths of the Head Start day and school year have garnered the most attention among grantees. Early educators refer to the length of time children spend in the classroom as “dosage,” and officials said that Head Start’s current minimums are just too low for the high-needs population that Head Start serves—especially considering that Head Start also provides other services, such as health and developmental screenings.

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“If we really want our teachers to focus on the comprehensive services, they really need a full day,” said Ms. Enriquez, the director of Head Start.

However, the proposal raises multiple questions about how grantees will find space and staffing to carry out this work. Currently, only 57 percent of Head Start preschoolers receive services for 6 hours or more a day, and only 31 percent receive services for 180 or more days.

While some parents might welcome a longer day, Mr. Ryan, with the Washington State Head Start Association, said he was not sure if a longer day should be mandated for all programs. Other changes could also increase preschool quality, he said, such as reducing student-teacher ratios. The proposal would maintain the current ratio of one teacher and one teacher-assistant for 20 children ages 4-5. For 3-year-olds, the ratio would remain, as it is now, 17 children to one teacher and one teaching assistant.

“The teachers I work with will pretty consistently say ... they’d be happy to put more money into increasing the dosage, but the first thing they’d do is decrease the class size,” Mr. Ryan said.

Vol. 34, Issue 36

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An earlier version of this article said that comment period on the proposed Head Start standards ends in a month. The comment period is open through August 18.

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