Secretary Burwell: Changes to Head Start will raise standards

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell says changes to Head Start were a decade in the making.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell says changes to Head Start were a decade in the making. AP

The summer that I turned 6, right before I entered the first grade in my hometown of Hinton, West Virginia, was a special summer for me, thanks to a special program. Every morning, I would bound into a classroom at Central Elementary School and ask my teacher, Rita Pack, “What are we going to learn today?”

Some days we watched the miracles of science by hatching chickens in an incubator. On other days, we learned how important it was to learn and play together. I made my lifelong friends in that classroom.

Growing up in a small rural town, the Head Start program in Hinton reminded me every single day how much fun learning could be. For over 50 years, the Head Start program has promoted the school readiness of more than 33 million young children from birth to age five. And today we’re taking new steps to improve the program for young children and their families.

Today, we are unveiling some of the most significant improvements to the Head Start program in the 51 years of its existence. They are improvements nearly a decade in the making – stemming from the bipartisan Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 – and they will help make Head Start better for decades to come.

Thanks to these improvements, we are raising standards so every Head Start kid gets high-quality, comprehensive services.

Finally, we want our Head Start staff and teachers to focus on children, not paperwork.

We’re extending classroom instruction to a full school day and a full school year for nearly every Head Start program – more than doubling the current minimum requirement. My Head Start program in Hinton only lasted through the summer, and our current research shows that more time in the classroom can strengthen children’s abilities to think and communicate and help them retain what they have learned.

Personally, I wish that every child could have a teacher as great as Mrs. Pack. And many Head Start programs today offer effective professional development opportunities to educators, so teachers have the chance to grow in their profession. These new standards will set an expectation that this is the norm across all of Head Start.

But Head Start is about more than early learning opportunities. Its health services have been important parts of the program, and these new standards will help us ensure that more children can get the physical and mental health support they need to thrive.

These kids are at the center of everything we do for Head Start. But there are many adults who play a vital role, too.

Parents have also been key to Head Start’s success. With these new standards, we’ll make sure parents can keep playing this central role in the Head Start program. We’ll strengthen families’ involvement in child learning with evidence-based parenting programs, and we’ll ensure that parents can take a leadership role in how Head Start programs are governed.

The new standards will also help Head Start programs keep children safe. They’ll allow programs to adjust their policies and procedures as quickly as possible, so they can adapt to the most current information about child safety and protection.

Finally, we want our Head Start staff and teachers to focus on children, not paperwork. So these new standards cut regulatory requirements for the program by nearly a third without compromising the quality that has been the cornerstone of Head Start for more than half a century. For example, these new standards eliminate restrictions that were specific to Head Start programs, when government-wide procedures already exist. Rather than have Head Start programs follow unique nutrition requirements, those requirements will now be aligned with the nutrition standards from the Department of Agriculture.

We are making historic changes to this program based on the best science.

Under President Obama, this Administration has made early learning a priority. And we’ve had bipartisan support to do it. In the past seven years, in partnership with leaders in Congress, we have more than doubled the number of infants and toddlers in Early Head Start. Last year, Congress provided funding to help more children attend Head Start for a full school day and year. President Obama’s most recent budget builds on this progress, proposing the funding needed to allow more than half of the children in Head Start to participate in Head Start for a full school day, and over the full school year. Research unequivocally shows that high-quality early learning programs can set the course for children’s success throughout their life. We hope that leaders in Congress will continue to help us make this crucial investment in our future.

But in the meantime, we are making sure that Head Start is strong, streamlined and successful. We are making historic changes to this program based on the best science, so Head Start can continue to bring us closer to the day when any child – no matter what neighborhood she calls home – can look up and ask, “What are we going to learn today?”

Sylvia Burwell is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.