HHS to Tighten Head Start Standards

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The Department of Health and Human Services, expanding the Obama administration’s policy of making federal programs prove they are effective, has announced proposed rules that would require the worst-performing Head Start programs – about one-quarter of the approximately 1,300 – to compete for grant money.

Announcement of the proposed rules came after a major evaluation of the program, released in January, showed that the academic benefits students gained through Head Start did not follow them even as far as the third grade. Critics have called for the elimination of the program, which serves about 700,000 children across all the states. Congressional supporters have campaigned for higher standards for the individual Head Start programs.

“A renewed era of innovation, improvement and integrity in Head Start is here,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement at a news conference where the proposed rules were announced.

Head Start generally enjoys widespread political support, because the program is in virtually every congressional district. A total of about $100 billion has been spent on Head Start since its inception. Unlike programs administered by the Education Department, Head Start is administered by HHS, largely because it was established in the 1960s as part of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, as a way to give low-income children the boost they needed to start kindergarten or school.

 The programs are administered by local community organizations – not overseen by  school boards – and originally were designed to ensure that the children’s health needs were met and that they had been socialized to deal with the structure of school and with teachers and other children. No specific academic standards were set for the programs, and they vary widely.

The proposed rules would require the bottom-performing programs to compete for grant money. The programs that would have to compete would be determined by their financial accountability and integrity, classroom standards and health and safety standards. A classroom assessment developed by University of Virginia researchers also would be used.

The number of programs that would have to compete under the administration’s proposal is greater than the 15 percent to 20 percent recommended in 2008 by an advisory committee.

In announcing the proposed rules, HHS also said it was opening four new training and technical assistance centers to identify and disseminate the best practices of Head Start programs. In addition, coaches will be placed in many poor-performing classrooms, and the 10 top-performing programs will be named Centers of Excellence and will provide help for peer programs.

The proposed regulations were published in the Sept. 22 Federal Register. They can be viewed at www.regulations.gov.  Closing date for comments is Dec. 21.