Our Children Can’t Wait: New Regulations Increase Accountability and Boost Quality in Head Start

President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, right, talk with students while visiting a classroom at the Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa., Nov. 8, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

We know that the first years of our children’s lives are critical. That’s when the most rapid development happens in their brains and when they pick up the social, emotional, and academic skills that will help them succeed.  When children get what they need during these early years, it can lay the foundation for success in school and through every stage of their lives.

President Obama and HHS’s announcement today of historic reforms to the Head Start program will help to ensure that all children in Head Start are attending top-notch programs that will help them reach their full potential. The Department of Health and Human Services will implement new rules that will – for the first time in the program’s history– require all Head Start grantees that fail to meet a new set of rigorous quality benchmarks to compete for continued federal funding.

Under the new rules, programs that fall short of quality benchmarks will have to compete. We will put out a notice to all early education providers in their communities: If you can do better, you’ll get the Head Start funding.  And after the initial round of reviews, Head Start providers will continue to be evaluated every five years to make sure they’re maintaining a high standard of performance.

The best Head Start programs do much more than teach kids their ABCs. They help children develop the self-control and critical thinking they need to become successful learners. They connect kids with essential health services like immunizations that they may otherwise go without. They get moms and dads engaged in their children’s education. They put kids on a path to opportunity.

This rule is a key part of the President’s broader agenda to strengthen Head Start. In the last two years, we’ve also improved training for Head Start providers, provided mentors for programs that want to improve, and created 20 Centers of Excellence that are models for the rest of the Head Start community. Combined with this new system of evaluation and competition, Head Start providers today have more tools and more incentives to improve than ever before in the program’s history.

In a world where the jobs follow the best trained workers, America’s capacity to lead the world will depend on our success in educating all of our children, including those most at risk for falling behind. The early years are critical to that success. This Administration will continue to work to make sure our children can grow up with the tools and experience they need to compete.

Today’s Head Start children are tomorrow’s workforce.  Today we are taking a historic step toward making sure all children in Head Start get the top notch early education they need to succeed.

Kathleen Sebelius is Secretary of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.


  1. Children learn through guided, structured and unstructured play. I hope we are not moving towards an “accountability” program that results in more testing of children. That has not been effective in improving schools for K-12. Testing is not teaching.

  2. I am a director of a multi-site Head Start program that has center-based and home-based services. There are 3,358 Head Start performance standards in 7 content areas (health, disabilities, mental health, family support, safe environments, education, and parent involvment. There are 8 systems: governance, planning, communication, recordkeeping/documentation, on-going monitoring, human resources, transportation, program design and management. The program pays us so low that we can hire only inexperienced teachers, or those at the AA level. In addition, we have to have consultants for the content areas. Our local school system is is business 163-170 days per year, while my program is open 244 days per year. I have teachers at the BA level, and 3 of our kindergarteners this year went to gifted programs. Through our partnership with the local school, I know that my teachers have scored higher on the CLASS than the teachers at the local schools. My teachers have an Educaiton Coordinator who supports, trains, troubleshoots, and monitors their work and the childrens’ progress. The local school has no support for the teachers – we trained them on the use the the curriculum and the web-based assessments. The local school teachers literally get paid twice as much as my staff, have many years of seniority, and both our children and staff do better on the same monitoring and asessments are theirs. The program with Head Start is that the standards are a hodge-podge of policy, practice, procedures, instructions, and operations that change in priority every year. It’s all encompassing nature has made it the fountain from which ALL of early childhood education and development programs, as well as child care licensing standards have come from. But it is an unwieldy program with many working parts which do distract from the basic early learning mission. Unformtunately, that is not the part that was revised. In addition, there is a large constituency that wants to off Head Start for what it represents: the very last part of the 1960’s War on Poverty and one of the last pieces of legislation aimed at the very poor. It is also the catalyst for empowerment of poor women, who brought their chidren to the centers, and stayed to learn about how they could make a difference for themselves and their children. Yes, it needs an overhaul – especially in light of how many things have changed since it was started over 45 years ago. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    • This is exactly what I feel too. I have worked for Head STart for 31 years and I can tell you from my observation and experience the public schools are a disaster and so is the pre-k program in my areas. There is no way that our program doesn’t do a more quality job than that of those that are so less experienced in the field. My feelings are the same as yours. I have just been to a conference that told us that we need to put it in the papers exactly what we are doing. So I’m making it my job to let everyone in Head Start know that we need to advertise just what we are doing in every community for the families we serve. Please pass it on. We also need to let the President know what we think of his recompetition plans. If we put Head Start up for recompetition all the expertise in a program will be lost and they will not be able to keep up with all the rules and regulations the program has to live by.
      I’ve heard that some of those interested have just thrown up their hands when thinking about applying for the grants as the performance standards alone are more than they can fatham. You have to love this program and believe in what it is all about in order to carry out all the government stipulations.

  3. The purpose of Head Start was to help children belonging to families who struggled financially. It was to help needy families gain parenting skills and resources as well as, give their children an equal opportunity to succeed. Head Start has been struggling for years with non-qualified teachers and corruption at the state levels. Is there any proof that this program is truly making a difference in the lives of these families? I feel that this program is known for enabling families rather than teaching them to be successful on their own.
    It is my advice that the money be given to the states to be used for their state preschool programs that hire qualified teachers, regulated what is going on in the classrooms and provide high quality early learning standards as a guide for best instruction. These programs also help promote parenting skills, and help the families become involved in their child’s education. These programs work more closely with the school districts; therefore parents and children more easily transitioned to Kindergarten and the public school. Stop wasting money on programs that have not proven to benefit the majority of families that attend, and put it where there is proven success.

    • You are clearly someone who doesn’t know what Head Start is all about. Please go and visit one of their classrooms. Get yourself on Policy council as a community rep and learn about the program. I have never seen public school do anything to help educate parents. Maybe they do in your area, but not in mine. In my area they don’t even want parents to visit school. Great realtionships!

  4. I support the head start program, however, In the state if Texas non english speaking children are first to be able to enroll in this program, leaving national english speaking children not eligible. My grandchildren could not attend this program because they could speak english, along with my neighbors children. This program is being paid by american citizens and used on illegals.

  5. In my experience, most kids lose their want to learn, much later in school. If the child has issues or problems they are labled. I think each child must be treated as an indivdial, not just in special ed but all children.

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