HHS Accelerates Head Start Quality Improvements and Submits Impact Study on 2002-2003 Head Start Programs

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–January 14, 2010.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today announced plans to strengthen the Head Start and Early Head Start programs as part of an Administration-wide effort to close achievement gaps and promote early learning through the first eight years of life for the nation’s most vulnerable children. These quality improvements respond to growing evidence on what works in early learning policy and practice, and incorporates Congressional mandates from the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start Act.

“Head Start is a key part of the Obama Administration’s strategic focus on early learning,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announcing the new initiative. “The program provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and social services to low income children and families.  “Still, for Head Start to achieve its full potential, we must improve its quality and promote high standards across all early childhood programs.”

A Congressionally-mandated study on the impact of the 2002-2003 Head Start program was submitted to Congress on January 13, 2010.  The study measured the cognitive and social/emotional development, health status and behavior of approximately five thousand 3 and 4 year olds who were randomly assigned to either a control group or a group that had access to a Head Start program.

“These results make it clear that we need to build a more coordinated system of early care and education, and to focus on key improvements to teaching and learning in the early grades,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Through our collaboration with our partners at HHS, we have begun to tackle this challenge by identifying the key elements of high quality early learning programs, and studying what works to improve and sustain outcomes once children reach school.”

The study showed that at the end of one program year, access to Head Start positively influenced children’s school readiness.  When measured again at the end of kindergarten and first grade, however, the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied.

“Research clearly shows that Head Start positively impacts the school readiness of low-income children.  Now we must increase its effectiveness and continue to provide the support that our children, from birth to eight, need to prepare to succeed later in school and in life,” Secretary Sebelius said.  “The President has looked to HHS and the Department of Education to develop a coordinated and seamless plan to get children off to great starts, and to help families and communities to break cycles of poverty.”

To strengthen the impact of Head Start, HHS is in the process of:

  • raising program performance standards
  • increasing program accountability by only renewing grants for high-quality, constantly improving programs
  • improving classroom practices by providing higher quality training for classroom teachers, staff and program directors and improving technical assistance to grantees looking to improve their programs
  • convening a research advisory committee to gather insights from the Head Start Impact Study and other relevant research
  • partnering with the Department of Education to collaborate with early childhood education and ensuring continuity of quality programs

“Head Start has been changing lives for the better since its inception,” said Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, Carmen R. Nazario.  “Now we are raising the bar with the Head Start program to make sure it does all it can to expand children’s vocabulary, develop math skills, and help them engage with teachers and other children in ways that enrich their lives and prepare them for school and beyond.  We will work to ensure that the advantages children gain in the program are sustained in the years ahead.”

Nazario went on to explain how the Administration has begun to ramp up efforts to improve the quality of all early childhood programs, with a focus on those serving low income families.  One key element to this integrated effort will involve the Early Learning Challenge Grant program now under consideration in Congress. The program, which would be administered jointly by HHS and the Department of Education, would challenge states to develop innovative models that promote high standards of quality in all early childhood settings – including Head Start, child care centers and public and private preschools.  Funds would be granted to states already making progress on reform and excellence, allowing them to bring their models to scale.  Grants would also go to states that show promise, but need additional assistance to launch a standards-based, outcomes-driven system.

Established in 1965, Head Start promotes school readiness for children in low income families by enhancing their social and cognitive development through educational, nutritional, health, social and other services. Head Start, and the more recently launched Early Head Start, have provided services to 25 million children and currently serve nearly a million children each year.

To read more about the Office of Head Start’s Roadmap to Excellence go to