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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Press Office
February 3, 2003

President Bush's Plan to Prepare Children for Kindergarten

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. 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 requires that states be held 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 coordinating and providing a high quality preschool experience before children enter kindergarten.

The major federal program aimed at this goal 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 programs that provide approximately $23 billion in federal and state funds for child care and preschool education. Through planning, training, and the regulatory process, states have the responsibility and the authority in programs other than Head Start 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 including public schools and community-based organizations, and thus cannot be easily coordinated and aligned with other early childhood services by the states.

To address these two issues, the President proposes to allow interested states to coordinate preschool programs including Head Start to meet the needs of preschool children. Participating states will be asked to 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.

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

Bush Proposal to Improve Head Start

The single most important goal of the Head Start reauthorization should be to improve Head Start and other preschool programs to ensure children are prepared to succeed in school. Given the vital role states already play in conducting preschool programs, the President believes there should be a state option to foster comprehensive, high quality preschool programs.

Under the Bush proposal for improving preschool programs in general and Head Start in particular, states are offered the opportunity to coordinate preschool programs with Head Start programs in exchange for meeting certain accountability requirements. States wishing to participate must submit a state plan for approval to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Education that addresses several fundamental issues concerning preschool education. The issues that must be addressed by the state plan include:

* State Preschool Goals and Activities. States will explain how they will work with the public schools at the state or local level to develop the skills and behaviors that children must possess to perform well in kindergarten. The state will also explain how it will develop and implement a set of guidelines for use by individual programs to develop these skills and behaviors during the preschool years. The skills and behaviors should include: language development; pre-reading skills including phonological awareness, letter knowledge, and vocabulary; numeracy; and social and emotional competence.
* State Accountability Program. States must develop an accountability program that will indicate how well children in individual programs are performing relative to the skills and behaviors identified by the state as prerequisites for effective kindergarten performance. Accountability results by program will be made public and states will be encouraged to conduct activities designed to help parents understand the results for their child and their child's program. To the maximum extent possible, states should allow parents choice in the selection of preschool programs.
* Coverage and Maintenance of Effort. The state plan must result in, at a minimum, the same coverage to serve at least as many Head Start eligible three- and four-year-olds as are currently being served through Head Start. The state plan should identify the number of state dollars that were spent on state preschool programs and Head Start programs in the most recent fiscal year, and provide assurances that it will, at a minimum, maintain this level of state spending each year. States must also continue to provide comprehensive services, including social, family, and health services. States should ensure that all their preschool programs are coordinated with the Medicaid and State Child Health Insurance Program as well as with social service programs that provide help to poor and low-income families.
* Professional Development. States will provide information on their plan for assuring professional development opportunities for preschool teachers and administrators.
* Preschool Program Coordination. States will explain how they intend to coordinate the use of funds across all state and federal programs that have the purpose of promoting school readiness and how they will administer the program. These include, at a minimum, Head Start, Early Head Start, Title I preschool, the special education preschool program, and state-funded preschool programs. States are encouraged to include child care programs in their plan, especially programs supported by funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

The administration's proposal includes an additional feature that is designed to help fund the development of preschool guidelines and accountability programs. Under current law, the Department of Health and Human Services spends about $165 million per year to provide technical assistance to improve Head Start programs. The administration intends to make a significant portion of this money available to states to meet their needs in designing and implementing state plans.

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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