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Head Start Proposes Changes Designed to Reduce Bureaucratic Burden

Burwell_Emanuel_Head_Start.jpgHead Start, the 50-year-old program that serves about a million children and pregnant women from low-income families, released a proposal Tuesday that the agency said would raise education standards, build teacher skills, and pare down the current 1,400 regulatory standards by getting rid of "unnecessary and duplicative rules." 

The Head Start "notice of proposed rulemaking" is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Friday. Interested parties will have until Aug. 18 to submit comments. 

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia M. Burwell announced the proposed rules during a visit to a Chicago Head Start center on Tuesday. 

"As a Head Start kid myself, I know firsthand the power Head Start has to instill a lifelong love of learning," she said during a speech at the Nia Family Center.  "By reducing the unnecessary bureaucratic burdens and applying the latest research and best practices in our Head Start programs, we will help more children onto the path of success." The Office of Head Start is a part of HHS.

Back in 2007, Congress reauthorized the $8.6 billion Head Start program with a directive for it to update its performance standards based on the latest research on child development and early learning. These proposed rules have been in development since then. 

The proposal sets an expectation that all Head Start programs will operate for a full school day and full school year.

In fiscal 2014, about 43 percent of Head Start preschools operated for more than six hours a day, 5 days a week. The remaining 57 percent operated for fewer hours a day, or did not operate for a full work week. Head Start programs must operate, at a minimum, 3.5 hours a day for 128 days a year, but the proposal said a half-day program is inadequate for children who are already educationally at-risk. The proposed changes would match what many state-run prekindergartens are offering, the proposal noted.

(The proposal also suggests that centers make a special effort to reach out to the families of children who have four or more unexcused absences. I explored the issue of chronic absences among preschool children back in March.) 

The rules that govern Head Start operations would also be up for a major revision. The notice of proposal rulemaking acknowledged that the current system has created a  "somewhat opaque set of requirements that can be unnecessarily challenging to interpret and that overburdens current grantees with process-laden rules." The new structure would highlight the rules that Head Start considers to be most important, rather than having them buried deep within the regulations. 

The new rules would also give providers the option to waive some rules if they can demonstrate that a locally-designed program is better for the children that they serve.

For many Head Start teachers, professional development would shift to intensive coaching instead of "intermittent workshops and conferences, which are not shown to lead to sustained improved practice." Coaching will be an additional burden for some providers, but the proposal said that Head Start is convinced that this model will move the needle on child outcomes.

In a statement, Head Start Director Blanca Enriquez said the standards represent "a blueprint for building programs that help children to learn, grow and flourish."

She added, "We look forward to using the feedback we will receive during the public comment process to make these standards even stronger."

Photo: U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visit Tuesday with a child enrolled in the Nia Family Center in Chicago. They were there to announce a proposed rules revision for the 50-year-old Head Start program.—Courtesy Office of Head Start

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