Big Changes Coming to Head Start Include More Intensive Coaching

About a million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers across the country receive meals, medical care, and early education each year through Head Start. Their parents receive home visits and health services as well as nutrition and peer support groups. Now Head Start, a leader for 50 years in preparing children from low income families for kindergarten and beyond, is about to undergo its first comprehensive overhaul since 1975.  

In June, the Department of Health and Human Services released proposed Performance Standards for the continuous improvement of Head Start services. The revisions reflect new science about early childhood learning and recent research-based practices to enhance teaching, curriculum use, assessment approaches, family engagement, and health and mental services.

Under the proposed standards, Head Start would become full-day and full-year—operating no fewer than 230 days a year; no less than six hours a day. There would be more outreach to families, better child-attendance monitoring with a focus on addressing chronic absenteeism (including required home visits for frequently absent children). Child suspensions would be limited; expulsions would be prohibited for children with challenging behaviors. And if a provider can show that a locally designed program would be more beneficial for its children, some of the structural requirements proposed for the center-based, home-based, and family child care options could be waived.

One change that may have the biggest effect on Head Start teaching involves a form of intensive professional development. The new standards would largely replace intermittent teacher workshops and conferences with on-site coaching. The change is largely based on a growing body of research supporting the importance and potential effectiveness of intensive professional development through coaching that implements research-based practices in early childhood settings.

AIR studied coaching from 2011-2014 among a sample of Head Start programs and administrators in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The Early Learning Mentor Coach Study included 121 program directors, 455 coaches, and 80 teachers. This large, descriptive study found that most coaches reported success in improving the quality of their teachers’ instructional and behavioral management practices. Virtually all staff receiving coaching gave positive feedback about their experiences. Administrators, coaches, and staff said that coaching contributed to their programs’ quality improvement efforts.

The study’s research on the structure and implementation of coaching made it clear that logistical, administrative, and financial decisions are key when designing and launching coaching initiatives. AIR suggested a coaching program logic model to guide the decisions about resources (coaches), inputs (approaches), outputs (duration of coaching), and outcomes (teacher knowledge, classroom quality, and child development).

Available evidence generally supports the positive effects of coaching on teacher practice and classroom quality. It makes sense for Head Start to think about this well-regarded professional development approach in the new standards. Public comment on the proposed changes is open until August 18.

Jonathan (Yoni) Farber is a researcher at AIR who specializes in early childhood education research.