New Head Start Report Issues Recommendations to Improve Overall Program


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Friday released a report by early childhood experts on ways to improve the Head Start program.

This report has been in the works for two years, after HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius convened a panel of experts to inform the department on the design of a newly required national evaluation of the program. The call for this panel was a requirement Congress made in its 1998 reauthorization of the Head Start program. It is a separate action from the HHS’ evaluation — determining whether the positive effects of Head Start participation last through third grade — and the much-anticipated national re-competition. The HHS said it intends to announce the agencies that will be awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in Head Start grants in December.

This latest report goes in depth on recommendations for improving the effectiveness of Head Start based in part on the panel’s review and interpretation of previous studies of the program for low-income 4-year-olds and for Early Head Start. One of those previous studies is the Head Start Impact Study, the final piece of which will be the third grade follow-up Congress has been requesting.

In a formal letter by the committee to Secretary Sebelius recapping findings from the study, it did preface by saying that Head Start has a strong infrastructure to support the quality of the program, such as uniform performance standards, a strong technical assistance network and a monitoring system to ensure local programs are meeting these high standards. Yet, the program can be improved, so the committee made recommendations in three major areas: using data to improve school readiness and other key outcomes, using evidence-based practices and improving the coordination of services from prenatal to age 8. 

Federal Head Start Director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes said in a formal statement following the release of this study that her office would use these recommendations “in our ongoing research and programmatic efforts to maintain our high standards and expectations for all Head Start programs. By ensuring we stay ahead of the curve, Head Start can continue to provide underprivileged children with the tools they need to keep pace with their peers in educational, social and emotional development.”

The statement also included a breakdown of some steps the agency already has taken while reviewing the report, including:

• Analyzing data from the Head Start and Early Head Start evaluations to identify the characteristics of programs that are the most effective in achieving Head Start’s goals;

• Convening an expert panel to develop and establish national school readiness goals for both English and dual-language learners;

• Developing a “consumer guide” that will provide information on curriculum and assessment guiding each program in selecting effective tools to collect and analyze data from its own unique population;

• Designing a study to identify effective approaches to teacher coaching; and

• Evaluating the effectiveness of promising parenting interventions that enhance ongoing Early Head Start Services for the most vulnerable infants and toddlers.