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    Statement by
    Wade F. Horn, Ph.D
    Assistant Secretary for Children and Families
    Head Start and Child Care in the Context of Early Learning
    before the
    House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education

    April 17, 2002

    Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I am pleased to appear before you today to testify on Head Start and child care in the context of early learning. I want to convey my strong commitment to working with this subcommittee and with my colleagues from the Department of Education to improve the effectiveness of all programs that support the healthy development and school readiness of our nation's young children.

    The Administration is moving quickly and in a collaborative fashion to apply the latest research on how young children learn to improve early childhood and child care programs -- and to generate new knowledge about what works best in the early learning years. As you know, the President recently announced a series of early childhood initiatives to complement his No Child Left Behind education reform legislation. These efforts reflect his commitment and the Secretary's strong desire to enhance the learning opportunities for all young children, whether they enroll in Head Start, child care, public school-based prekindergarten centers, or are cared for by a parent, neighbor or family member.

    My testimony will focus on what we know from our most recent research on levels of learning and school readiness for young children and how we are using this knowledge to improve the quality and effectiveness of Head Start and child care programs.

    What We Know

    We know from the Department of Education's 1998 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K) of a nationally-representative sample of 22,000 kindergarten children that children from low-income families perform at significantly lower levels in reading and mathematics in kindergarten and first grade than children from nonpoor families. This clear evidence of an overall achievement gap in the first years of schooling motivates the President's new efforts to improve the quality and performance of all early childhood programs, including Head Start.

    This survey is one of several examples of early childhood research and program collaboration between ACF and the Department of Education. We have worked together with the Department of Education to agree on a common set of child assessment measures in ECLS-K and major Head Start and child care research studies, and ACF contributed funding to support additional analysis of the ECLS-K data base.

    Further, Head Start is implementing a research agenda designed to identify and implement state-of-the-art approaches to advancing children's progress on all dimensions of school readiness. For example, the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) is an ongoing longitudinal study of Head Start programs, drawing upon a nationally stratified random sample of 3,200 children. FACES provides, for the first time, national data on Head Start child outcomes, family involvement, key aspects of program quality and teaching practices.

    Newly available findings from FACES research allow us to compare the performance of Head Start children enrolled in 1997-98 and children served in 2000-2001. Both groups of children entered Head Start with levels of academic skills and knowledge far below national norms. Although both groups demonstrated progress in early literacy and social skills, their overall performance levels when they left Head Start still remained below national norms of school readiness. Therefore, we must do more to ensure that Head Start children enter kindergarten with strong literacy skills.

    Head Start research efforts are being expanded through the Head Start Impact Study, a rigorous national impact evaluation of Head Start effectiveness using a randomized control group research design. In addition, a new set of Quality Research Centers is evaluating the effectiveness of a variety of early literacy curricula and teacher training models in local Head Start programs.

    Another important Head Start evaluation study is examining the progress of infants and toddlers served in Early Head Start. This research shows that children in Early Head Start were functioning significantly better than a randomly assigned control group in cognitive and language development and their parents were more likely to read to them regularly. These results demonstrate our ability to apply the latest research on early brain development to establish the early building blocks for developing literacy.

    Head Start is implementing initiatives in 2002 that are based on the most rigorous scientific evidence available. However, there is much that we do not yet know about the specific program and curriculum content and teacher preparation needed to comprehensively prepare children for early school success. ACF is collaborating with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education, and other DHHS agencies on a $45 million, 5-year initiative to fill this gap in knowledge.

    The initiative will stimulate rigorous experiments to identify how best to promote children's emerging literacy, language and cognitive development while also supporting their social-emotional competency, self-regulatory skills, positive dispositions toward learning, and physical health. Scientists will establish partnerships with early childhood programs including Head Start, Early Head Start, pre-kindergarten programs, center-based child care, and family day care. The initiative has begun with a $2.5 million solicitation to support essential start-up activities in 2002 for large-scale multiple-site studies to be fully funded in 2003. The National Institute of Mental Health and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation are co-funding this portion of the initiative.

    We also provide national leadership in child care research through an ongoing program of studies of the effects of Federal, State and local policies on the supply, demand and quality of child care services. Technical assistance efforts support States, Territories and Tribes in using the findings of this research in their child care policies and programs.

    We are continuing to provide Federal leadership to strengthen our understanding of what works best to help young children and their families and to improve child care and early education programs.

    Combined, this major investment in research will enhance our understanding of what combination of curricula, teaching strategies and program services are most effective for the diverse types of children, ages 0-5, served in Head Start and child care programs.

    Improving Child Care and Head Start Services

    Head Start's mission is to help low-income children start school ready to learn by providing early childhood education, child development, comprehensive health, and social services. Since 1965, local Head Start programs across the country have served more than 19 million children and built strong partnerships with parents and families. This year's appropriation will allow us to serve approximately 915,000 children -- 853,000 in the Head Start program and 62,000 in the Early Head Start program.

    I believe that we all would agree that Head Start makes positive contributions to the lives of thousands of children and families. But if the program is to achieve its full potential, we must integrate new research findings about early childhood learning into the program. This shift in the focus can -- and should -- be accomplished without sacrificing the comprehensive nature of the program.

    Recently, the President announced a major new step in this direction. The Good Start, Grow Smart Early Childhood Initiative outlined by the President will have a very positive impact on strengthening the early literacy component in Head Start and child care. As part of this initiative to improve teaching and learning outcomes in our more than 46,000 classrooms, an intensive national teacher training effort in early literacy is planned to begin this summer. Project STEP, Head Start's Summer Teacher Education Program, has a goal of training all of the nearly 50,000 Head Start teachers in early literacy teaching techniques. In addition, the President directed our department to ensure that, for the first time, every Head Start center assesses and is held accountable for specific standards of learning in early literacy, language and numeracy skills.

    Project STEP will enhance the effectiveness of Head Start teachers by providing intensive teacher training on strategies to foster children's progress in specific indicators of early language and pre-reading skills, including phonological awareness, vocabulary, print and book awareness, letter knowledge, and early writing. This summer, 2500 Head Start teachers and child care providers will receive 32 hours of research-based training in teaching strategies, classroom arrangements and materials to promote children's literacy and language learning. They will then return to their programs as Early Literacy Specialists to provide training to other teachers as well as ongoing coaching and supervision throughout the year to support implementation efforts. Additional follow-up support will be provided through a 30-hour college credit early literacy course for teachers and other staff members, delivered through satellite television, the Internet and on-site facilitators.

    Through this systematic, nationwide training effort, we will increase the knowledge of all Head Start teachers in using the latest research on how children develop early literacy and language skills -- and enhance the capacity of all Head Start programs to provide enriched literacy learning opportunities for children. Head Start programs will work closely with parents so they can help their children improve literacy skills at home.

    Project STEP builds on recent progress in improving the credentials and compensation of Head Start teachers, in order to meet the national requirement established in the 1998 reauthorization of the Head Start Act that at least 50 percent of all teachers in center-based programs have a degree in early childhood education or a related field, with experience in teaching preschool children, by September 30, 2003. Supported by an investment of nearly $80 million to pay for training costs and salary increases, the percentage of teachers with at least an Associate's degree has increased from 32 percent in 1997 to 46 percent in 2001. In order to attract and retain more highly trained teachers, programs are allocating funds to increase staff compensation and fringe benefits. Over the past decade, teacher salaries have increased from less than $14,000 to an estimated average of $22,000, and staff turnover is reported at a relatively low and stable rate of less than 10 percent annually.

    Along with our increased investment in teacher training, the President is calling for improved efforts to keep track of what Head Start children are learning -- and to use information on child outcomes to guide program improvement and accountability efforts. Specifically, Head Start programs will be directed to assess standards of learning in cognitive skills and school readiness. Under this new initiative, each local Head Start agency will be required to assess all preschool children's progress and accomplishments at the beginning, middle and end of each year on specific congressionally-mandated indicators of early literacy, language and numeracy skills. Programs will use this assessment information to plan improvements in their curricula and teaching. Federal program monitoring teams will review program implementation of these requirements.

    Further, the President has directed the Department to design a national reporting system to collect child outcome data from every local program. Together with ongoing Head Start research and the results of program monitoring reviews, this new reporting system will create comprehensive information on the effectiveness of each local program. This information will be used to target new training and program improvement efforts, improve instruction to meet the individual needs of children, and in HHS evaluations of local Head Start agencies. This new accountability system will be field tested in 2002, with full implementation planned for fall 2003.

    Let me emphasize three crucial points of clarification on this initiative:

    1. We are not mandating or developing a national standardized achievement test for Head Start children. We do not intend for Head Start children to spend hours sitting at desks taking paper-and-pencil tests. We will be consulting this summer with a broad range of early childhood research and assessment experts along with Head Start practitioners to identify the most accurate, fair and age-appropriate assessment tools for this effort. This consultation will include consideration of assessment instruments currently in use in local Head Start agencies and in Head Start research and evaluation studies as well as observational, portfolio and performance-based assessment tools.

    2. We will not defund Head Start programs solely on the basis of children's test scores. To the contrary, our goal is to help every program improve its effectiveness in our mission to prepare children for school success. We do believe information on children's learning should be an integral part of Head Start program accountability.

    3. Assessing children is not a new requirement for Head Start programs. Long-standing Head Start Program Performance Standards require initial screening and ongoing assessment of every child enrolled in Head Start. Our intent is to improve the quality and credibility of these ongoing assessment efforts and to use this information in new ways to improve Head Start program effectiveness.

    This new accountability effort will complement existing quality assurance requirements based on Head Start's national Program Performance Standards, which include specific requirements in early childhood education, health and disabilities services, and family and community partnerships. To ensure that local programs meet these standards, we conduct rigorous on-site monitoring reviews of every Head Start agency at least once every three years. If program quality problems are discovered, the local agency is required to correct them. In such cases, ACF will provide appropriate technical assistance to the grantee. If the program is unable to correct the problems, its funding is terminated and a new community agency is selected to run the Head Start program. Roughly 90 percent of all programs are successful in meeting the Head Start standards. However, we have replaced more than 160 grantees in the last 10 years.

    We also are taking steps to work with States in their planning and management of federal child care funds to improve program quality and children's early learning. The President's Good Start, Grow Smart initiative is a clear charge to the entire early childhood education field, including child care programs. In addition to administering the Head Start program, the Administration for Children and Families is responsible for administering the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). Through CCDF, we are providing $4.8 billion in grant funds to States in FY 2002; a portion of that amount is reserved for the financing of technical assistance and training activities, demonstration grants, and a program of research projects in early childhood education and child care. These CCDF funds, taken together with TANF transfers and expenditures and State contributions, amount to more than $11 billion dollars in funding, the majority of which supports early childhood education and care, and in addition to funding provided through Head Start or pre-K programs.

    We will respond to the President's charge through several major activities. First, to ensure that pre-school activities are aligned with State education goals, the President's plan asks States to develop quality criteria for early childhood education, including voluntary guidelines on pre-reading and language skills activities for pre-school age children that align with K-12 standards. To help States meet these criteria, States will be given greater flexibility by allowing them to count more of their pre-K funds towards their federal child care fund matching requirements. We will work actively with the States as they prepare their next biennial Child Care State Plans to ensure a focus on incorporating these State early literacy guidelines in their child care programs. In addition, child care professionals from every State and territory will be invited to participate in the Head Start teacher-training activity this summer to further solidify the focus on early literacy skills.

    Along with our specific program improvement efforts at HHS, we are actively working with other Federal, State and private partners to enhance awareness and use of research in early childhood programs and agencies. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education are coordinating an interagency task force to translate research on learning readiness into action in Head Start and other programs for preschoolers. The formation of this task force was announced by Secretary Thompson and Secretary Paige at the White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development that was hosted by the First Lady last summer. We also look forward to partnering with the Department of Education as they implement the President's new Early Reading 1st Program that will provide $75 million to develop model programs to offer research-based literacy training to preschool, Head Start and child care teachers.


    I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and look forward to working closely with the Congress to make the President's vision a reality in the years ahead -- to enable every early childhood program to offer the learning opportunities that all our children deserve.

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Last revised: April 26, 2002