Strengthening Head Start: What the Evidence Shows. Children in Head Start are not getting what they need to succeed in school


Certain knowledge, skills, and experiences are strong markers of school readiness. For example, we know that children who recognize their letters, who are read to at least three times a week, who recognize basic numbers and shapes, and who demonstrate an understanding of the mathematical concept of relative size as they entered kindergarten have significantly higher reading skills in the spring of first grade than children who do not have this background. In fact, the difference between children who do and do not have this knowledge upon entering kindergarten is approximately one years worth of reading development at the end of first grade. This is true regardless of family income and race or ethnicity.(2)

Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood development program designed to provide education, health, and social services to low-income children, ages 3 to 5, and their families.(3) Last reauthorized in FY 1998, Head Start is scheduled for reauthorization in FY 2003. Federal grants to operate Head Start programs are awarded directly to the local organizations that implement the program, including public agencies, private non-profit and for-profit organizations, Indian Tribes, and school systems. Since it began in 1965, Head Start has enrolled over 20 million children.

However, while making some progress, Head Start is not doing enough to enhance the language, pre-reading, and pre-mathematics knowledge and skills that we know are important for school readiness. The knowledge and skill levels of young children entering Head Start are far below national averages. Children graduating from Head Start remain far behind the typical U.S. child. We know also that all disadvantaged children who need high quality early educational instruction are not in Head Start. Some are in pre-kindergarten programs, others are in child-care settings, and still others are at home with parents.

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