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Head Start Policy Book

Are All Children Prepared to Enter School?

Since Head Start was created in 1965, research about the importance of high quality early education in preparing children to be successful in school and in life has advanced dramatically. In addition, the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 gives states an even greater interest in ensuring that all children are ready to learn.

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

An important question facing the nation is whether this wide variety of programs and immense outlay of federal and state funds is helping to prepare children for school. When Head Start was created in 1965, it was initially guided by the hope that providing a nurturing environment, adequate nutrition, help for families, and opportunities for socialization for low-income children would develop the cognitive, social, and emotional foundations that would make learning easy once they entered school. While some evidence has indicated that children attending Head Start programs perform better on cognitive measures after a year in preschool, these benefits are short-lived and fade quickly. Indeed, after over three decades of noble service by Head Start programs, low-income children continue to perform significantly below their more advantaged peers in reading and mathematics once they enter school.

Since 1965, our scientific knowledge of the major factors that promote cognitive, social and emotional development in early childhood has increased and informs us of what it will take to promote a genuine "head start" for low-income children. This new knowledge clearly indicates that promoting school readiness in Head Start programs is more complex than initially envisioned. We now know that while the development of healthy bodies, social competencies and emotional health are necessary to succeed in school, they are not sufficient. To do well in school, each child must learn to understand and communicate with language, to recognize letters of the alphabet, and to hear the individual sounds in spoken language. For many children living in poverty, a high-quality early childhood setting can help them learn these skills.

Research on the effects of small-scale, high-quality early education programs show unequivocally that high-quality infant and preschool programs can produce large and lasting benefits. Most researchers believe that very high-quality programs can prepare children to perform better in the public schools, to avoid special education placement, to avoid grade retention, and to boost graduation rates. In addition, these programs have often led to reduced delinquency and crime, increased rates of college attendance, increased employment rates and earnings, and reduced dependence on welfare.

But when the school readiness of the nation's poor children is assessed, it becomes clear that Head Start and other large-scale preschool programs have failed to have widespread impact on the school preparation of these children. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, an ongoing assessment of the skills and characteristics of a sample of 20,000 children from across the nation who entered kindergarten in 1998, indicates that the transition to school is marked by difficulty for many children. Teachers report that one-quarter of beginning kindergartners are either never or only sometimes eager to learn, and that one-third never pay attention in class or do so only sometimes. Consistent with teacher perceptions, many children perform at low levels on assessments of skills and knowledge at kindergarten entry. The children who are least prepared for kindergarten are those whose parents did not complete high school, those coming from low-income or welfare-dependent families, those living with single parents, and those speaking a language other than English. Forty-six percent of kindergartners in the U.S. have one or more of these four risk factors, with the proportion at-risk rising to 65 percent among children in large cities and 75 percent among African-American and Hispanic children. As compared with children with no risk factors, children with one risk factor are twice as likely to have pre-reading scores that fall in the lowest 25 percent of the overall skill distribution. Children with two or more risk factors are around three times as likely to score in the bottom quarter in pre-reading. Children from families with multiple risks typically do not know their letters and cannot count to 20, nor can they associate letters with sounds or make judgments about relative length.

These differences at entry to kindergarten exert major impacts on academic achievement as children proceed through the elementary grades. About 60 percent of the children who were proficient in letters at entry to kindergarten can read words in context at the end of first grade. By contrast, only 21 percent of children who were not proficient in letter knowledge at kindergarten entry can read words in context.

States are recognizing the importance of high quality early education and preschool programs in preparing children for school and are taking steps to improve both the quality and quantity of these programs. State funding for early education programs has increased from $190 million in 1988 to almost $2 billion today. Twenty-six states target their programs to children from low-income families. Fifteen states and the District have specific standards for prekindergarten, and 5 more are working on standards.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

Although states have been increasing their support for preschool programs for at least the past decade, they were recently given an additional reason for developing high quality preschool programs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the most important federal education reform since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, states must create strong standards for what each child should know and learn in reading and math in grades 3-8. States, districts, and schools will then be held accountable for improving the performance of all student subgroups, so that every student is performing at proficient in reading and math by 2014. This Act brings a new level of accountability to our schools to ensure that the achievement gap is closed and that every child receives a quality education.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 also implements the President's Reading First initiative by increasing federal funding for scientifically- based reading programs to over $1 billion each year to ensure that every child can read at grade level by the third grade. Since every state, district, and school will be held accountable for ensuring that children are proficient in reading and math, schools are now highly motivated to improve student performance.

Given what we know about the importance of early childhood programs in preparing children for school in conjunction with states being held accountable for the academic progress of all students, states should have the authority to coordinate high-quality preschool programs. Schools would then have a much better chance to ensure that their students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve at grade level. States understand that high quality and accountability are just as important in the preschool years as they are in grades K-12.

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