State-Funded Pre-Kindergarten: What the Evidence Shows. I. Introduction


Whether or not children will be successful students depends greatly on the quality of their experiences in early childhood. Research has demonstrated the value of providing comprehensive interventions for developing the knowledge and skills that prepare children for kindergarten and for closing the school achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students. In addition to health and social-emotional components, recent research has highlighted the need to include strong language, pre-reading, and pre-mathematics components. Head Start is the major federal program designed to promote the school readiness of poor children and to assist them in developing to their fullest potential. The cornerstone of the Head Start approach to promoting school readiness has been the provision of comprehensive services to address children’s cognitive, social-emotional, health and safety needs while strengthening their families and supporting parents’ participation in their children’s education. With reauthorization in 1998, emphasis was placed on developing children’s language and pre-reading skills. When Head Start first began in 1965, very few states had experience with providing pre-kindergarten programs. Since then most states have begun to offer pre-kindergarten to meet children’s educational needs, as well as provide health and other services to support school readiness. Before the recent passage of No Child Left Behind, which emphasizes greater state accountability for children’s learning in K-12 education, many states recognized that raising levels of school achievement requires investments to improve the quality of children’s preschool environments, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This report examines the role that states play in comprehensive early childhood education by reviewing:

  1. states’ level of support for pre-kindergarten programs,
  2. the quality and effectiveness of state-funded pre-kindergarten, and
  3. state efforts to build integrated, comprehensive early childhood systems for children from birth through age five that have a focus on school readiness.

A previous U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report summarized evidence showing the need to strengthen the language, pre-reading, and pre-mathematics skills of children in Head Start and to better coordinate early childhood programs in order to minimize redundancy, increase efficiency, and improve quality and access.(1) To address these issues, the Administration has proposed targeted enhancements to the Head Start program and has proposed giving a small number of qualified states the authority to coordinate pre-kindergarten and other early childhood programs and services with Head Start. The primary motivation for these proposals is to ensure that children in Head Start, as well as children in other early childhood settings, have the educational experiences they need to become school ready, while continuing to receive the comprehensive services that allow children to benefit from high quality learning experiences.

However, some questions have been raised about whether any of the states are prepared to offer high quality, comprehensive early childhood education and whether states would be sufficiently dedicated to such an effort. The evidence reviewed in this report addresses whether or not states are indeed ready to meet these challenges.

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