Head Start Works. And It’s About to Get Even Better.

The new Head Start Performance Standards mean big changes for an already impactful program.
Blog Post
Sept. 2, 2016

Head Start, the nation’s oldest and largest early education program, has been making headlines over the last few weeks— in a good way. Since the Head Start Impact Study was released in 2010, the program has come under scrutiny because the study found that the modest gains participants made on select school readiness indicators after one year of program participation faded by the end of first and third grade.

Even though other studies have found that Head Start participants experience long-term benefits well beyond third grade, and multiple researchers have dug into the Head Start Impact Study data to figure out what exactly makes some programs more effective than others, critics have been stuck on what they see as disappointing results of the Impact Study.  

But two recent studies may further help to change this narrative. Georgetown just released a study on Tulsa’s Community Action Project (CAP) Head Start program that finds the positive effects of the program last through the 7th grade. The study found measurable positive effects for girls, Hispanic students, white students, and students who were eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program who participated in the CAP program. These students had higher state math test scores and were significantly less likely to repeat a grade or be chronically absent. Unfortunately, the study did not show the same positive results in reading scores -- the researchers noted that this may be because students’ home environments play a bigger role with reading skills than math skills

The second study comes from the Hamilton Project at Brookings.  Their new economic analysis  extends what we know about the long-term impacts of Head Start even beyond middle school. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey that has tracked a multi-generational representative sample since 1979, the study compares Head Start children with their siblings who either went to a different type of pre-K or who did not attend any program.

The results show that, compared to siblings who did not attend the program, Head Start participants were more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to have attended college or received a postsecondary degree or certificate. Among Hispanic participants, Head Start participation increased the likelihood of postsecondary credential completion by approximately 15 percentage points. The study also shows that Head Start increases students’ self control and positively contributes to participants’ self-esteem. These gains were especially prominent for black participants.

This study also considered the effect of Head Start on participants’ children. They found that Head Start alumni appear to invest more in their own children years later. To measure these investments, the researchers looked at the frequency of positive parenting practices, such as  reading to their child or showing physical affection. Head Start is often held up as the nation’s original two-generation program because it supports participants and their parents— this study suggests that Head Start could be indirectly benefitting a third generation down the road.

These studies are further proof that Head Start works. Some Head Start providers might be more effective than others, but overall, these studies show that the program is doing what LBJ intended: giving children in poverty a head start on their future. The Head Start program has changed a lot since it was first implemented over 50 years ago. The Head Start participants followed in the Impact Study and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth were in Head Start a long time ago, and since then the program has made positive changes to improve quality.

And yesterday, the Obama Administration announced that Head Start is going to see it’s arguably most sweeping overhaul yet. With the 2007 reauthorization, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was tasked with updating the Head Start Performance Standards that all Head Start programs must follow. HHS released their proposed standards last summer and New America submitted comments, available here.

So what made it into the final regulation released yesterday? Here are some highlights:

Probably the most significant change to the program will be the major increase in dosage (time spent in the program). Currently, Head Start centers only need to provide services for 3.5 hours per day and 128 days per year— that’s 448 hours per year for anyone without a calculator handy. Over the next five years, all center-based programs will need move toward serving children for 1,020 hours per year. Instead of prescribing the daily hours and number of days that programs serve children, like HHS suggested doing in the proposed standards, they’ve decided to give programs flexibility in their schedules. Head Start providers might choose to align schedules with their local school system or meet other unique needs of families in their communities.

Early Head Start providers will also be required to increase their hours to 1,380 per year and will have flexibility in meeting this requirement. More time in the program can be beneficial for both children and their parents. For children it means more time for high-quality interactions with teachers and peers. It can also mean greater gains in cognitive skills. For parents, full-day programs are more likely to align with work schedules. This will be an expensive change, and the five-year timeline proposed by HHS may alter based on federal funding levels.

Giving programs more flexibility is a recurring theme throughout the new standards. As Colleen Rathgeb, a Division Director in the Office of Head Start said in a webinar, they are “Moving away from process approach and trying to make it more about outcomes… to reduce administrative burden.” The new standards are “less about the how, and more about the what.” The, standards, often criticized for being overly prescriptive in nature and a burden to providers, have been slimmed down by approximately 30 percent and are significantly simplified.

The new standards also encourage coordination and alignment of Head Start with other systems, such as state QRIS, state pre-K, and elementary schools. Head Start programs must participate in state QRIS only if Head Start monitoring data is accepted to document quality indicators included in the state’s tiered system and participation does not impede a program from complying with Head Start requirements. With the verdict still out on whether most state QRIS systems accurately reflect program quality, joining a state QRIS could be duplicative or add to the administrative burden of Head Start programs with perhaps little added benefit.

In a similar effort to align programs and avoid duplication, when state pre-K systems provide high-quality pre-K for 4-year-olds, Head Start providers must now prioritize serving 3-year-olds, infants, and toddlers. The standards also include requirements around strengthening transitions from Head Start to kindergarten, which are too often rocky. This includes equipping parents to be advocates for their children during this transition, fostering better communication between Head Start staff and their elementary school counterparts “to facilitate continuity of learning and development”, and joint training and professional development between Head Start teachers and kindergarten teachers.

It’s worth noting that last summer HHS specifically asked for public comment on whether all Early Head Start and Head Start teachers should be required to hold a bachelor’s degree, which is in line with the recent National Academy of Sciences recommendations on strengthening the early childhood education workforce. Ultimately, HHS decided not to require all Head Start teachers to transition to bachelor’s degrees, but notes in the final rules that they support the National Academy of Sciences recommendations and that all classrooms having a teacher with a bachelor’s is the ideal.

The new rules do include a change in staff qualifications for Head Start directors. All directors hired after the rules go into effect will need to have “at a minimum, a baccalaureate degree and experience in supervision of staff, fiscal management, and administration.” The job of an early childhood center director is similar to that of an elementary school principal, yet the education requirements are very different. It’s important that Head Start directors have the knowledge and skills they need to effectively lead a program. However, as instructional leaders, they should also have a deep understanding of early childhood education, which is not a requirement under the new regulation.

We’re glad to see that the standards have been heavily informed by the latest research on early childhood education. These changes are important— Head Start serves over one million of our country’s most vulnerable children. And they’re going to be a big change for Head Start center directors who are accustomed to the old standards. The new standards go into effect on November 7, 2016, but many of the larger reforms discussed here will be implemented over a longer time period. We’ll be digging into them more this fall.