The New Head Start Performance Standards

As someone who works in early education, you know what Head Start is. Whether you work in a Head Start program or are a parent looking to learn more about it, the details can be confusing. From eligibility requirements to head start performance standard updates, there’s a lot to know.

Head Start is a government-based program that promotes school readiness for pre-Kindergarten children from low-income households. From infants to preschoolers, the programs aim to get these kids ready to be successful in elementary school. Eligible children participate at no cost to their families.

It’s not just about working with the children, though. Head Start programs engage parents and guardians too, supporting family well-being and involvement in their children’s learning and development.

One of the key elements of Head Start, that guides individual programs to ensure effectiveness, is the Head Start Program Performance Standards, or HSPPS. Recent updates made significant changes to how programs operate and support children.

We’ll go through the HSPPS, what they are, and the important updates that parents, families, and early education staff need to know.

What Are Head Start Performance Standards?

The HSPPS serve to set the standards for services offered by Head Start programs. They also set minimum requirements to ensure all participants receive high-quality services. The standards apply to both Early Head Start and Head Start. Think of them like a road map for programs to follow as they develop services for children and their families.

The standards that guide Head Start services and programs, and the services offered, have gone through a few changes over the years:

  • Head Start dates back to 1965 with the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Project Head Start. No standards existed at this time.
  • The eight-week demonstration program received praise and continued, although it moved to the Office of Child Development in 1969. The government first published the standards for the program in 1975.
  • In 1995, the Clinton administration introduced Early Head Start to address the needs of children from infancy through age three.
  • Services expanded in 1998 with both full-year and full-day programs. The standards also received minor updates.
  • The first major reauthorization of the program occurred in 2007 and had support across the aisle. It included several updates to improve standards for the quality of programming.
  • In 2016, Head Start revised the HSPPS. This was the first comprehensive revision since the government published the standards in 1975.

The 2016 updates began with the 2007 reauthorization. The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 required that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) make the changes. The law stated that these must be based in science and developmentally appropriate.

The Importance of Updates to Head Start Performance Standards

The current HSPPS reflect updates in what we know about early education and development. They come from changes in understanding of how children learn and develop.

The changes HHS made to the standards come from education experts and researchers. Input also came from public comment, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee Final Report on Head Start Research and Evaluation, and program monitoring.

Ultimately, these changes are important because they set the requirements for how programs support all aspects of a young child’s development: social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. Timely updates ensure programs offer services of the highest quality and provide the best outcomes.

To get into specifics, these are some of the most important reasons for the HSPPS updates:

  1. Improvements in quality. The changes to the standards implement the most recent research to build quality programs for young children and their families.
  2. Strong outcomes. The standards don’t include new research in a vacuum. There are real consequences for children and their families. The updated standards aim to improve actual outcomes for every child. These specifically include later success in school and reductions in achievement gaps for lower-income students.
  3. Support for families and community. Updates also reflect how vital it is to include parents, families, guardians, and communities in Head Start and early childhood development.
  4. Improved family well-being. Head Start seeks to involve parents and improve outcomes for children. It also aims to improve overall family well-being.
  5. More effective instructors. The changes to the standards ensure that instructors and other staff are more effective. They set higher standards for staff development.
  6. Efficient operations. Some of the changes to the HSPPS should reduce the bureaucratic burden, making it easier to administer Head Start programs. This helps state and local programs focus on providing higher-quality services.
  7. Increased transparency. The changes also reflect a need for greater transparency. They should make it easier for grantees—organizations seeking funding for a Head Start program—to understand the requirements.

Reorganization of the Standards

The new HSPPS includes a complete reorganization. One of the major goals of updating the standards was to make them clearer and easier to understand. This included eliminating 11 different sections, with overlap between them. Instead, the standards now include five sections with clearer definitions and purposes to help grantees create and operate successful programs: 

When the HHS updated the standards, they also streamlined the organization within each section. They each follow the same structure to make it easier to read and understand:

  • Each part is broken down into subparts based on education, health, and other major topics. These are labeled with capital letters.
  • The subparts contain numbered sections to further break down the topics.
  • Within the numbered sections are paragraphs, labeled with lower case letters.
  • Some of these further divide into paragraphs given lower case roman numerals and then capital letters.

There are several levels to the standards, which can seem confusing initially. They do, however, provide a clear structure that makes reading and understanding them easier. 

Important Updates to the Performance Standards

The HSPPS updates included some big overhauls and a lot of small changes. For those interested in an overview, several highlights illustrate the most important changes. These include changes to the duration of programs, bureaucracy, use of data, health and safety, family engagement, and expanded services for children with special needs.

Increasing Duration

Making Head Start programs longer is likely to have the biggest impact of all the changes to the HSPPS. The major change is the requirement by August 2021 that most Head Start programs are full-day and year-long.

The duration requirement includes flexibility. Rather than requiring 180 days at six hours per day, Head Start programs must operate for a total of 1,020 hours per year. For Early Head Start, the requirement is 1,380 hours. These new rules allow each program to develop schedules that work for participants rather than being forced into a rigid structure of program hours.

Research supports increasing services duration as a major benefit to children and families:

  • School Success. Studies show that a longer amount of time in preschool results in better outcomes for children later. More hours prepare them better for success. Increased preschool and Head Start hours also reduce behavioral problems in young children. One major marker is test scores, which go up for students in longer-duration preschool programs.
  • Early Learning Outcomes. Students learn more when they spend more hours in school. A study of half-day versus full-day kindergarten found that those in the longer program made more gains learning literacy and math.
  • Summer Learning Loss. Another issue for shorter-duration programs is the loss in learning that occurs during summer. The learning loss is especially significant for children of lower socioeconomic status. Extending Head Start allows these kids to retain more. It also lowers the achievement gap.  
  • Family Complications. Full-day programs also help parents and families. Half-day programs make it more difficult for parents to find and keep full-time jobs. Without adequate child care, families have limited work opportunities.

Reducing Bureaucratic Burden

One major shift in the standards is away from difficult bureaucratic processes. The point of many of the updates is to make it easier for grantees to get funding, develop programs, and run programs. This will hopefully allow them to provide better services and put more focus on the children and their outcomes.

A few of the ways the HSPPS makes it easier to run Head Start programing are:

  1. Putting more emphasis on student outcomes than on processes and planning
  2. Getting rid of duplicate requirements, including those Head Start requirements that overlap with those already existing across the HHS
  3. Streamlining and simplifying the standards
  4. Increasing transparency
  5. Allowing for more flexibility in how programs meet the standards

The efforts to simplify and streamline the HSPPS led to a 30% reduction in regulations and standards. This should make a big difference for the people running the programs.

Strengthening Family Engagement

Another major aspect of the new HSPPS is the commitment to family engagement. In response to concerns that this might get overlooked, the new standards retain all the previous requirements for parents. These include home visits, parent–teacher conferences, and working with parents to achieve goals and transition children to kindergarten.

The new standards add to these existing requirements for families. The updates strengthen the existing requirements with new, evidence-based programs for families. They also give parents an important role in administering Head Start programs as members of policy councils.

Improving Health and Safety

The new standards address another big concern, which is health and safety. They target significant public health issues. Head Start programs have even stricter requirements now for providing health services to children. They reflect a more current understanding from research.

Health services offered include obesity prevention, dental health care, vision and hearing screenings, nutrition, and mental and behavioral health consultations. For improved safety, the new standards require more staff training and rigorous background checks.

Other Changes to HSPPS

The major changes to the standards—duration, health and safety, family engagement, and bureaucracy—are just some of the highlights of the HSPPS. Additional changes represent smaller tweaks, and may impact fewer children, but are still important: 

Supporting Head Start Programs with Technology

The HSPPS should reduce confusion and make it easier for programs to get grants and meet the requirements for Head Start. They should help parents and families engage more strongly with the programs. Ultimately, the standards should lead to better outcomes for children.

Of course, the standards, although clearer, can still be confusing. Programs have a lot of requirements to meet. Parents have a lot to read about what educators expect from them. Any technology that can make this process easier will result in better readiness for kids.

Learning Genie is a powerful but simple tool that benefits educators, parents, and children. More than 200 Head Start programs already use it. Learning Genie supports Head Start programs in several ways:

  1. Meeting language requirements. Learning Genie can translate into more than 100 languages to support the families with DLL students. Hiring translators is usually cost prohibitive, so this is an affordable option.
  2. Improving family communication and engagement. Keeping parents and families involved remains one of the foundations of Head Start standards. This tool streamlines communication with messaging, instant updates, reminders, daily reports, learning media, homework uploads, and more.
  3. Increasing school readiness measures. School readiness is a primary goal of Head Start. Literacy is a major factor in this. Learning Genie provides virtual books, so that families can read at home together.
  4. Collecting and using data. Data collection is a big part of the new standards. To improve student outcomes, programs must collect and report on a lot of information. Learning Genie makes it easier to do this using personalized reporting tools and data dashboards. The dashboard is particularly powerful. It collects real-time data to improve family engagement and other measured requirements.

Learning Genie also works with Head Start programs to smooth the difficulties brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening. For programs reopening in person, it offers documents, screening forms, and check-in and -out documents. These and other tools reflect data for safe reopening of schools.

Families and programs can also benefit from Learning Genie as a distance learning tool. While some programs remain partially or fully distanced, families stay connected through virtual events and using virtual learning materials.

Educators and parents can use Learning Genie webinars. They provide tools, ideas, and tips for more effective distance learning. For instance, you can choose a webinar about creating a YouTube channel to support remote learning. Another webinar shows educators how to use Learning Genie to track in-kind contributions to their Head Start programs.

Head Start is on a new path with updated and clarified standards. The beneficiaries of these changes are the children. Data-driven adjustments and staff development, increased family engagement, improved health services, and greater support for all students improve outcomes. With Learning Genie, Head Start programs and parents and families work together more efficiently.