Today the Department of Health and Human Services released proposed changes to its Head Start Performance Standards that for the first time encourage socioeconomic integration in Head Start classrooms. The summary of the proposed rules highlights several several changes that are designed:

“to better support the ability of programs to serve children from diverse economic backgrounds, given research that suggests children’s early learning is positively influenced by interactions with diverse peers.”

Under the new rules, Head Start programs are explicitly allowed to enroll over-income families (who would pay a fee to attend), and programs are required to consider whether socioeconomically diverse enrollment would be appropriate for their program as part of their planning process.

This is exciting news, with the potential to strengthen outcomes for Head Start children.

Preschool classroom diversity is related to program quality. As a report released this April by The Century Foundation and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council explains:

“Children who are clustered in high-poverty and high-minority preschool classrooms develop fewer cognitive skills on average than children who may also be low income and minority, but who attend more diverse classrooms.”

The idea that Head Start would be a stronger program by enrolling children of different economic backgrounds is not a new one. As I explained in a recent blog post,

“Developmental psychologist Edward Zigler—known as the “Father of Head Start”—envisioned Head Start as a socioeconomically integrated program, offering low-income children the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment, while at the same time creating a broader base of political support for the program by serving middle-class families as well.”

So far, this vision for an integrated Head Start has not been realized, but the proposed rules published today are an important step in that direction.