Strengthening Head Start: What the Evidence Shows. Efficiency can be improved through coordination


Some states have already experimented with providing coordinated early childhood programs, or with new approaches to enhancing school readiness. Over the past 20 years more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have begun to offer preschool programs for children under age 5.(49) States are also working to use new knowledge about childrens learning and development in the early years to improve programs and build better early childhood systems. Following are some examples of state-level innovations in working across the early childhood system to improve outcomes for children.


In early 2003, Colorado initiated a new school readiness program for children in neighborhoods with low-performing schools. The program allows counties, in partnership with the states Community Consolidated Child Care Pilot program, to apply for a 3-year supplemental subsidy for child care centers that feed into low-performing public schools. The program, which will serve 5,600 children in 468 classrooms, will fund equipment, supplies, curriculum, teacher training, and teacher bonuses for improved performance. Providers must demonstrate improvements within 18 months to remain in the program.(50)


The Connecticut School Readiness Initiative (CSRI), a partnership between the state departments of education and social services, seeks to increase the availability of high quality full-day, full-year child care programs for low-income families and to help bridge the school readiness gap between urban students (primarily minority) and their more affluent suburban peers. The program primarily targets low-income preschoolers ages 3 to 5 and provides funding for up to two years of services. Local school readiness councils are responsible for allocating funding to individual programs. CSRI includes an evaluation of classroom quality, and baseline assessment data were used to target quality improvement funds. Between 1997 and 2000, CSRI showed significant improvement in classroom quality, with the number of classrooms rated excellent tripling and the percentage of classrooms rated inadequate to minimal dropping from 50% to 8%.(51)


In the mid-1990s, Delaware began to provide comprehensive early childhood programming for all children aged four who were living in poverty. The Early Childhood Assistance Programs (ECAP) are modeled after the federal Head Start program and use the Head Start Performance Standards as their program standards. The state also supplements federal Head Start funds with its own dollars. Delaware formed an interdepartmental committee called the Interagency Resource Management Committee to oversee the states early intervention programs, including the ECAPs, the Birth to Three Early Intervention System for very young children with disabilities and their families, and the Preschool Children with Disabilities programs for three-and-four-year-olds. Delaware funded a longitudinal study of its early childhood program, which found that 69% of former Head Start students in the state are meeting the standards on state achievements tests in third grade. Only 48.7% in a comparison group of poor children who did not attend Head Start are meeting those standards.(52)


The Georgia Pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) Program was established in 1993 to provide Georgias four-year-olds with high quality preschool experiences needed to be ready for kindergarten and the elementary school years. The program is funded by a state lottery that was created in 1989 to support only education initiatives, including a voluntary preschool program for four-year-old children. This approach is creating a system that includes Head Start, pre-kindergarten and center-based childcare programs.

Georgia Pre-K is administered at the state level by the Office of School Readiness (OSR), which reports directly to the Governor. Enabling legislation authorizes OSR to administer the operation and management of voluntary pre-kindergarten, and certain other preschool and child development programs, and any federal funds relevant to these functions. OSR also is authorized to provide assistance to local units of administration to ensure proliferation of services. OSR oversees Pre-K, licensing of Pre-K providers, the federal funded Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program, and a set of other initiatives. The agency works directly with local providers to implement state policies and federal funding streams.

There are two types of competitive processes to establish child care learning centers, depending on whether the center plans to offer primarily pre-kindergarten services or both pre-kindergarten and comprehensive family supports and engage in extensive coordination with Medicaid, TANF, Food Stamps, SSI and, in some instances, children who receive free and reduced price meals under the USDA school lunch program. To become a Georgia Pre-K service provider, a program must be approved by OSR staff. Applicants must describe the content that will provided to children during the 6.5 hours of instructional time, expectations for children at the end of the 180 day program, and which of the seven approved curricula will be used (or the applicant may submit a locally developed one for approval instead).

To offer additional services, applicants must demonstrate the quality of the service delivery plan, linkages to other collaborative initiatives in the community, the education and experience of the resource coordinator, the proposed plan to collect data and evaluate outcomes, and a budget proposal which should address the number of children served compared to expenditures. Children who receive assistance beyond the pre-kindergarten services are referred to as Category One children. In the 1999-2000 school year, 970 Georgia Pre-K child-care learning centers enrolled 62,500 children, including 30,000 Category One children.

OSR has developed detailed guidelines to assist participating providers in implementing key policies and procedures. The guidelines define eligibility criteria and specify educational experiences which must be provided for at least 5 hours per day in the areas of language/literacy development, mathematics, science, music, art, and physical development and. OSR has developed a set of Learning Goals to describe the meaning of these categories and a Best Practices Portfolio with specific classroom activities. The guidelines also specify criteria regarding class size, teacher qualifications and training, curriculum, licensing, parent fees, parent participation, transportation, health services and resource coordination services.

Pre-K services are provided by public/private elementary and secondary schools, postsecondary vocational technical institutes, private and state colleges, private non-profit and for-profit child care learning centers, Division of Family and Children Services offices, Head Start sites, hospitals, military bases, and YMCA/YWCAs. OSR does not require programs to provide services to extend the duration of the program, but many providers put together funding from the Department of Human Resources and/or Head Start to extend the time they can provide services to low-income parents.

Lead teachers must have either certification in early childhood or elementary education; a four-year college degree in early childhood, education, or other approved fields, a technical institute diploma; a two-year associate degree or Montessori diploma; or a Child Development Associate (CDA) or Child Care Professional Credential (CCP). The state is phasing out the CDA and CCP options by requiring teachers with these qualifications to participate in degree programs.(53)

North Carolina

North Carolina has implemented a variety of strategies to build an effective early care and education system for children from birth to the start of kindergarten. Smart Start is a comprehensive community-based early childhood initiative that strives for collaboration at both the state and local level. An evaluation of Smart Start by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute indicates that the quality of center-based child care has significantly improved because of Smart Start, and that children who attended child care centers that were involved in Smart Start quality improvement activities entered school with significantly better skills than those who did not.

The More at Four pre-kindergarten program complements Smart Start by targeting at-risk four-year-olds and providing a high quality program of standards-driven, research-based educational pre-kindergarten. Each of North Carolinas early childhood programs, including Head Start, child care, Smart Start, and More at Four, strives to link its funding, delivery systems and programming with the others, which has resulted in significant improvements in cooperation and better service to children.(54)


Ohio seeks to coordinate its Head Start, public preschool, and child care programs, with the goal of providing a high quality preschool experience to low-income children. This state-federal Head Start partnership reaches 57,000 children, a number that encompasses nearly all eligible three- and four-year-olds in the state. Child care centers receiving federal child care subsidies can also receive Head Start aid for children whose families are at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The child care centers can then use Head Start resources to provide higher salaries and more training for staff members, both key aspects of high-quality child care programs. The centers, in turn, have to meet Head Start requirements for providing such services as health screenings and ensuring that parents are involved in the program. In addition, Ohio employs a system of standards, curricula and assessments that align preschool and Head Start standards with the states K-12 system.(55)


In recent years, Texas has been the site of several innovative efforts to improve the language, literacy, and cognitive skills of preschoolers, with the overarching goal of ensuring that children are prepared to succeed in kindergarten.

The Margaret H. Cone Head Start Center was established in 1990 as a partnership between the Texas Instruments Foundation and Head Start of Greater Dallas.(56) The goal of this partnership was to develop a model, research-based comprehensive early childhood services program for children and families who were mostly black and Hispanic and lived in a near-by, extremely impoverished South Dallas neighborhood. The approach has become a widely known example of a comprehensive, early childhood services program that has established a language and literacy-rich curriculum.

  • Prior to implementing the language and literacy- focused curriculum, initial evaluations of the Cone Head Start Center showed that although children were receiving health, nutritional and social services, they continued to enter kindergarten performing well below average and far behind their more advantaged classmates in cognitive and language ability. At the end of kindergarten, they consistently scored in the 20th to 30th percentile range on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
  • The Texas Instruments Foundation requested in 1993 that two early childhood educators at Southern Methodist University develop a curriculum to improve childrens language and cognitive skills. This request led to the development of LEAP (Language Enrichment Activities Program), a language and literacy-rich curriculum that is now the central focus of the Cone Center. The primary goal of the curriculum is to help Cone Center teachers strengthen their own language skills, apply new teaching methods, and help parents promote their childrens language and literacy development.
  • An independent evaluation of the programs impact is not available, but the curriculum developers have assessed language outcomes for five cohorts of children using a non-experimental design. Results show that kindergarten language scores improved, especially for later cohorts of children coming through the program.(57)

The Texas Early Start Initiative is a new state-wide effort to coordinate early childhood programs and enhance young childrens language and pre-reading knowledge and skills. The goal of the state initiative is to improve learning by providing Head Start, public and private childcare facilities, faith-based groups, and pre-kindergarten classes with teachers trained to use curriculum materials that prepare children for school, promote skills such as language and pre-reading that are essential to school readiness, and align with the states existing pre-kindergarten standards. Texas voluntary standards for the pre-kindergarten curricula cover language and literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, fine arts, health and safety, and physical development. The guidelines were developed in consultation with early childhood educators and administrators, as well as child development and early education researchers.

The Center for Improving Readiness of Children for Learning and Education (CIRCLE) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is the designated center for designing and implementing the Early Start initiative. CIRCLE is working to develop training for early childhood educators throughout Texas, identify curriculum materials that meet voluntary state standards and promote language and pre-reading skills, and coordinate early childhood funding streams and programs. The CIRCLE approach to educator training has produced substantial increases in language and literacy skills for children at Head Start centers and preschool programs.(58)

In addition to the state efforts covered above, several cities have also made great strides in improving coordination of early childhood programs at the local level. These examples include:

Denver, Colorado

Denver has integrated Head Start services with other local services for young children and their families to build a comprehensive, integrated network of high quality early childhood programs and services. The Denver public school system is a delegate of the Denver Great Kids program. Denvers public school system also operates an Early Childhood Program with a literature-based curriculum that provides services for approximately 3,700 four-year-olds in 88 elementary schools and 16 community centers.(59)

Bibb County, Georgia

The Bibb County, Georgia, Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has developed an initiative to serve poor families in the region through collaboratives, a series of projects created by combinations of local agencies that provide support services to families. These collaboratives, which include a child care and child care training center, a residential drug abuse treatment facility for pregnant and parenting women, a pediatric clinic, health programs at the local medical center, and neighborhood outreach programs, have created a high level of service integration in the county and provided greater access to services for poor families. As part of this county initiative, the Bibb County Training/Child Care Center provides skilled training for welfare recipients as child care providers, parenting skills training for welfare recipients, quality child care slots for children of welfare mothers returning to work, parenting skills for non-resident fathers, and training for child care providers, including in-home providers.(60)

Independence, Missouri

The local Head Start has collaborated with child care centers to provide high quality full-day care for children, while the local school district operates Child and Family Learning Centers, which provide full-day, high quality child care on a sliding fee scale for three-to-five year-olds at every elementary school.(61)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, located in the southern Piedmont region of North Carolina, is one of the largest in the nation. The districts pre-kindergarten program, Bright Beginnings, is a full-day, literacy-based initiative for four-year-olds identified as having educational needs. A primary motivation for the program was the need to eliminate the achievement gap for poor and minority students in the county. Funding comes primarily from Title 1, with significant support from community and corporate partners. Children are eligible for the program if results of formal screening show an educational need, as specified in the Title I policy guidance.

Bright Beginnings currently serves approximately 3,000 students. Sites are located in centers and elementary schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. A few hundred students participate in Smart Start-funded community-based sites, such as child care centers, part-day preschools, and Head Start facilities. Additional classes are funded by North Carolinas More at Four initiative (see state description). The required components of the program are a child-centered curriculum with a strong focus on language development and pre-reading; professional development; ongoing research and evaluation; strong parent/family participation and involvement; and community partnerships, participation, and collaboration. While the program emphasizes language and literacy development, a guiding principle of Bright Beginnings is that cognitive, social, emotional and physical development are interrelated in young children, and all developmental areas must be addressed. Thus, in addition to language and literacy, the curriculum provides key foundational experiences in mathematics, science, social studies, creative arts, social development, physical development, and exposure to technology using computers and age-appropriate software.

The program is linked to the districts academic goals for kindergarten through third grade. Teachers are required to have a North Carolina birth-through-kindergarten certification to teach in the program or to have provisional certification. Title I funds support the graduate school education necessary to qualify for certification.

Using a non-experimental design, the county has compared the literacy and mathematics performance of 1,382 students in the 1997-98 Bright Beginnings class to 184 eligible students who did not participate, as well as to all kindergarteners and first-graders in the school district. Children who participated had higher scores than non-participants in both kindergarten and first grade (though their scores did not reach the district average).(62) An independent, rigorous evaluation of the program has not been conducted; however, impact studies using randomized designs are currently underway with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and other collaborating DHHS agencies.

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