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Head Start Policy Book

Executive Summary

Research tells us a great deal about the skills and knowledge children need to be successful in school. Among preschoolers, vocabulary, letter knowledge, and phonological awareness, in addition to social and emotional factors, have a significant impact on later success in school. For example, reading scores in the 10th grade can be predicted with surprising accuracy based on a child's knowledge of the alphabet in kindergarten. We must ensure that children are equipped with the basic skills necessary so that they begin school ready to learn.

More than 40 states have initiatives aimed at helping preschool children prepare for kindergarten, because they know that children from poor families enter school behind children from more privileged families in academic skills. Schools often have difficulty as they compensate for this difference. At a time when only 38 percent of children from birth through age five receive care solely from their parents, and the remaining 62 percent of these children receive care through a variety of arrangements, it is important that these settings provide high-quality care to ensure that children begin school ready to learn. States were recently given an additional reason for developing high quality preschool programs with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which holds states accountable for ensuring that all children are proficient in reading and math. Given what we know about the positive effects of high quality preschool programs in conjunction with states being held accountable for student performance, states should have a more prominent role in the delivery of Head Start programs to provide a high quality preschool experience before children enter kindergarten.

The major federal program aimed at preparing children for school is Head Start, which Congress is scheduled to consider for reauthorization this year. Since 1965, Head Start has provided a comprehensive program, including activities that aim to promote social, emotional, and cognitive development, as well as health services, for children in poverty. In light of what we know about the preschool years, the President believes Head Start must provide more emphasis on early learning and promote the best methods for preparing children for success in school by making early education a top priority. Research shows that acquiring specific pre- reading, language, and social skills strongly predict future success in school. Head Start sites that have implemented carefully designed programs that focus on school readiness have shown significant gains for children.

Head Start is one of many federal and state programs that together provide approximately $23 billion in funding for child care and preschool education. In programs other than Head Start, states have the responsibility and the authority through planning, training, and the regulatory process to have a substantial impact on the type and quality of services provided, and are held accountable for the delivery of high quality programs. However, Head Start funding goes directly from the federal level to local organizations, and thus states do not have the authority to integrate or align Head Start programs with other early childhood programs provided by the states.

To address these issues, the President proposes to allow interested states to integrate state and federal preschool programs including Head Start into a cohesive system in exchange for meeting certain accountability requirements. Participating states will design a plan outlining how they will: work with the public school system to develop goals for all preschool programs in the state; identify guidelines that preschool programs can use to achieve these goals; devise an accountability system to determine whether children are achieving the goals; provide professional development for preschool teachers and administrators; and help parents provide support for children to succeed in kindergarten. In addition, states must describe how they will maintain the range of child development goals of Head Start, including the provision of social, parental, and health services in their Head Start programs. In exchange for meeting these requirements, states will have the authority to create a unified system of preschool education to meet the needs of children from low-income families in their individual states.

Improving and prioritizing the educational components of Head Start, while allowing states to enhance coordination of all preschool programs, will go a long way toward meeting the President's goal of better preparing children to succeed in school. Some advantages include:

  • Enhanced school readiness among children leading to improved performance in school.
  • Increased ability for states to help working parents enroll their children in programs that better meet the children's and families' needs.
  • Better clarity of school preparation goals and improved guidelines for early education programs.
  • Greater coordination between the elementary schools and both early education and child care programs at the federal and state level that focuses on skills needed to prepare children for school.
  • More and better public information for parents to determine the particular early education programs that best prepare their children for school.

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