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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

We Can't Wait: President Obama Takes Action to Improve Quality and Promote Accountability in Head Start Programs

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the President will announce important steps to improve the quality of services and accountability at Head Start centers across the country.  The Department of Health and Human Services will implement new rules that will – for the first time – require all low-performing Head Start grantees that fail to meet a new set of rigorous benchmarks to re-compete for continued federal funding.

This reform will help direct taxpayer dollars to programs that provide high-quality Head Start services and ensure Head Start programs provide the best available early education services to children in every community. Today’s announcement is part of a series of actions President Obama has taken because America’s children only get one chance and can’t wait for help getting a world-class education.

“We can’t wait to give more of our youngest children the same basic opportunities we all want for our kids. That’s why today, I’m announcing a new rule that will increase the quality of Head Start programs around the country,” President Obama said. “After trying for months to work with Congress on education, we’ve decided to take matters into our own hands.  Our future is at stake.  Our children deserve action.  And we can’t wait for Congress any longer.”

“With this new rule we are introducing unprecedented accountability in the Head Start program,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “Head Start has a critical mission – to help children from low-income families achieve their full potential and, in turn, help our country build tomorrow’s workforce.  It is a top priority for the Obama Administration to ensure that the program fulfills that mission by holding programs to high standards for classroom quality and program integrity. We owe Head Start children the highest quality services available to prepare them for school and for life.”

Head Start provides grants to local organizations to provide comprehensive child development services to low-income children and families. Today, there are nearly1,600 Head Start and Early Head Start grantees across the country providing early learning services to nearly one million of our nation’s most vulnerable infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

This reform in Head Start builds on bipartisan policies enacted in the most recent revision of the Head Start legislation in 2007.  The rules were crafted by the Obama Administration with extensive input from a national advisory committee, parents, educators, child development experts and the public.  The new quality benchmarks are transparent, research-based, and include standards for health and safety, and fiscal integrity. They will measure Head Start classroom quality based on a rigorous, validated evaluation tool to determine which programs are – and are not  – providing high-quality services.

Over the next three years, the Department of Health and Human Services will review the performance and program quality of all Head Start grantees.  Those that don’t meet the quality benchmarks will be required to compete for continued funding. 

The new benchmarks mandate that any low-performing Head Start grantee will have to compete for funding if they have deficiencies discovered in their onsite review, fail to establish and use school-readiness goals for children, or demonstrate low performance in the classroom quality evaluation. In addition, grantees will also be required to compete for federal funding if their state and local licensing has been revoked, a Head Start grant has been suspended or if fiscal or management issues prevent them from properly manage federal funds.

Based on analysis of current program performance data, it is estimated that one-third of all grantees will be required to re-compete for continued funding under this new rule.  HHS will notify the first group of Head Start grantees that will be required to compete for continued funding in December 2011. 

Going forward, all Head Start grants will be converted to five-year grants and each program’s performance and quality will be evaluated every five years to determine whether the grantee meets the benchmarks or must compete to receive another grant.

Head Start is administered by the Office of Head Start in the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Strengthening Head Start

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama invested $2.1 billion in Head Start and Early Head Start, expanding these programs to reach an additional 61,000 children and families. The President has also made reform of the Head Start program a high priority, and has committed to ensuring that every Head Start center provides a high-quality environment.  While the majority of Head Start programs provide quality services to children and families, we need to ensure that children receive the full support needed to begin school ready for success.

Head Start is widely recognized for its comprehensive approach – programs promote early literacy and numeracy, while supporting good nutrition habits, physical activity, and positive social and emotional development. The rule announced today is an essential part of the Obama Administration’s strategy to strengthen Head Start and to raise the bar on quality, particularly for lower performing programs.

The Obama Administration has taken additional steps to improve quality in Head Start programs, including: 

  • Evaluating Teacher-Child Interactions in Head Start Classrooms.  Head Start program serving preschoolers have been evaluated using the CLASS: Pre-K tool since 2009.  This assessment is not only important for identifying programs for competition; it is designed to be used by programs to identify areas in need of improvement so they can target their efforts where they are most needed.  Rigorous research has shown that the CLASS: Pre-K is linked to important child outcomes, such as academic achievement and behavior. 
  • Improved Training and Assistance in Head Start Programs. The Obama Administration’s new network of evidence-based training will prepare Head Start classrooms around the country to undertake continuous improvements in their program.  Those who participate in these services can improve their programs so they are less likely to meet the criteria for competition.
  • Head Start Centers of Excellence. Twenty centers have been selected by the Obama Administration for distinction as a Head Start Center of Excellence, based on the quality of their program. These Head Start Centers are producing positive, measurable outcomes related to school readiness for children; supporting families; and increasing staff competence.  Information about their approaches and models of service will be disseminated to other Head Start and early childhood programs across the country to guide other grantees on a path to excellence.
  • Mentorship Across Head Start Programs. More than 125 grantees were selected for a 17 month pilot that pairs Head Start programs with mentors who have the expertise to help them improve the quality of their programs.  Selected grantees have proposed a variety of models that include on-site mentoring and distance mentoring through the use of technology.

Promoting School Readiness for America’s Children

The years prior to kindergarten are among the most significant in shaping a child’s foundation for learning and school success. Today’s announcement builds on a comprehensive early learning agenda to help provide the support needed for children to succeed in school and in life: 

  • President Obama’s Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge is a first-of-its-kind competition that will provide $500 million to winning states to bring innovation and quality improvement to all early learning programs, including Head Start, public pre-K, child care, and private preschools to close the achievement gap between low-income children and their peers. The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge focuses on outcomes and results in early learning, challenging governors to develop new approaches to raising the bar across state early learning settings to adopt rigorous standards across programs; undertake efforts to improve the early education workforce; and ensure that more children enter kindergarten ready for success.
  • President Obama’s call to strengthen our nation’s child care providers was presented in the FY 2012 budget, including principles for reauthorization of the child care subsidy system which serves 1.6 million low-income children and families each month.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act invested $2 billion in the Child Care and Development Fund, to support child care assistance and quality improvements. The Administration is working with State partners to raise the level of quality in child care programs by developing systems that set standards for quality, provide parents with information about the quality of child care programs, and provide pathways for providers to meet higher standards. 
  • The Affordable Care Act provided $1.5 billion over 5 years in funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which relies on evidence-based home visiting strategies that help families create a nurturing environment for young children. President Obama recognizes the importance of promoting healthy development and improving maternal and child health outcomes in the early years.  This program connects families to a range of services – including health, early education, early intervention and more – in order to better ensure that children are healthy and prepared for school and life.  Effective home visiting programs can have powerful positive impacts on maternal and child health, child maltreatment, parenting skills, children’s cognitive, language, and social-emotional development, and school readiness.