WADE F. HORN, PH.D
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
U.S. DEPARMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
SUBCOMMITTEE ON LABOR, HHS, EDUCATION AND RELATED AGENCIES
COMMITTEE ON APPROPRIATIONS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
March 25, 2004
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity
to testify before you today on early childhood research and the Administration’s
plans to improve Head Start. 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.
Head Start was launched in 1965 as part of a bold, “big idea”
– that no child should be disadvantaged in their education because
of the circumstances of their birth. For 38 years this country has demonstrated
a national, bipartisan commitment to this “big idea”. We have
worked together to provide adequate funding for the Head Start program
and have shown a willingness to make changes when necessary to improve
outcomes for children. We all have the same goal – to prepare these
children for success in school and life. Given that goal, none of us should
be satisfied until we have achieved the vision reflected in this “big
idea” – that economically disadvantaged children should arrive
at school on a level playing field with their more economically advantaged
peers. Anything short of achieving this goal should not be seen as a failure
of Head Start, but as a challenge for us to do even better.
Consequently, when recent research showed that Head Start graduates continued
to lag significantly behind age norms on a number of important indicators
of emerging literacy and numeracy skills, the President and Secretary
Thompson sent a clear message to my agency: more had to be done to strengthen
the educational outcomes for children. As part of the President’s
Good Start, Grow Smart initiative, we were directed to increase
the knowledge and skills of Head Start teachers in the area of preschool
language and literacy and to create and manage a National Reporting System
(NRS) that will help measure children’s progress in mastering the
skills necessary to prepare them for a lifetime of learning.
Furthermore, the broader social context has changed dramatically since
1965 when many States were just beginning to implement universal kindergarten
and no State had a publicly funded preschool program primarily targeted
to low-income children. Hence, in 1965 there was no need for Head Start
to coordinate with State-run preschool programs because there weren’t
any. Today, more than 40 States and the District of Columbia have early
childhood programs of their own. Numerous States are revising the standards
for child care and preschool programs. And as research has suggested the
importance of providing comprehensive services, States now are involved
in trying to integrate a multitude of other programs aimed at young children
and their families – from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,
to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid, to
special education, disabilities screening, and assessments—and the
list goes on.
In response to the President and Secretary Thompson’s charge and
the changing social context, we looked for ways to improve the effectiveness
of the Head Start program. Much about the program was working, and working
well, but we know the program needs to move ahead—particularly in
the area of educational gains and coordination. I would like to briefly
describe our on-going efforts to improve the educational component of
Head Start, as well as provide details on the President’s innovative
proposal for Head Start.
What We Know
Federal and State governments currently spend some $23 billion each year
for child care and preschool education—and much, much more than
that when you consider the other health, nutrition, and welfare-related
programs that serve these same children and families. Never has there
been such a clear commitment on the part of Federal and State governments
to enhance the well-being of children and families. Never have we known
so much about what children need for healthy growth and development. Never
have so many programs been focused on meeting these needs of our most
Unfortunately, in all of this good news Head Start, as one of those programs
designed to improve the early literacy skills and overall development
of low-income children, does only an okay job -- not a terrific or consistent
job -- of producing the school readiness we all seek.
After nearly 40 years of experience, Head Start children, on average,
still do not enter school at the same level as their more economically
advantaged peers. Additionally, we continue to see a disturbing lack of
coordination among programs and services designed to meet the needs of
this population. This has resulted in large gaps and uneven service areas
in the early childhood “safety net” for low-income children
and their families. Continuing difficulties in coordination across early
childhood education programs and child care also contribute to persistent
problems of under-enrollment in many Head Start programs.
Improving School Readiness
When the school readiness of the nation’s poorest children is assessed,
it becomes clear that Head Start is not eliminating the gap that low-income
children experience in the educational skills and knowledge needed for
school compared to their more economically advantaged peers. Most importantly,
low-income children graduating from Head Start continue to perform significantly
below their more advantaged peers in reading and mathematics when they
As my colleagues here will help describe, certain skills and abilities
are early and strong markers of school readiness. For example, we know
that children who recognize 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 enter
kindergarten have significantly higher reading skills in the spring of
first grade than children who do not have these skills.
Unfortunately, Head Start is not being successful enough in enhancing
these critical language, pre-reading, and pre-mathematics skills. Data
on outcomes for children and families in the Family and Child Experiences
Survey (FACES) demonstrate the low scores and limited progress of Head
Start children in key areas. Although Head Start children are making some
progress in some areas, including gains in book knowledge and print conventions
and growth in social skills and reduction in hyperactive behavior during
the Head Start year, as a group they continue to fall below the 50th percentile
across all major domains. Moreover:
- The level of children’s achievement in letter-recognition is
far below the majority of U.S. children who know all letters of the
alphabet upon entering kindergarten, according to the Early Childhood
Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class of 1998.
- Spanish-speaking children in Head Start did not gain at all in letter
recognition skills from fall to spring of the Head Start year.
- Although writing scores increased 2 points from 85.1 in the
fall to 87.1 in the spring of the Head Start year (with a mean score
of 100), this was a drop from 1997 when scores increased 3.8 points
- Children’s vocabulary scores were about 10 points below
the average or mean standard score of 100.
- Children made statistically significant progress in early math
between the fall (87.9) and spring (89.0) of the Head Start year. But
this difference is not going to reduce the gap with national averages.
- Children with overall lower levels of knowledge and skill showed
larger gains during the year compared with children who entered with
higher levels of knowledge. However, they too still lagged far behind
The Bottom Line: School Readiness
The bottom line for the President, Secretary Thompson, and me is improving
the school readiness of Head Start children. Given what we know about
the actual progress of children in Head Start, we must do more to ensure
that they enter kindergarten with strong early literacy, numeracy and
In responding to this challenge, the Head Start Bureau has undertaken
a number of efforts aimed at bolstering the school-readiness of Head Start
children. The Strategic Teacher Education Program, STEP, launched in the
summer of 2002, was designed to ensure that every Head Start program and
every classroom teacher have a fundamental knowledge of early development
and literacy, and of state-of-the-art early literacy teaching techniques.
More than 3,300 local program teachers and supervisors have received this
training and have served as "trainers" to the nearly 50,000
Head Start teachers across the country. I am pleased to report that trainers,
supervisors and teachers are telling us that the STEP training is making
a difference in their classrooms.
The Head Start Bureau also hosted national training conferences on mentor-coaching
and social-emotional development. These events expanded the skills of
teachers and supervisors in fostering effective classroom practices and
provided follow up in Head Start classrooms. A national Web-based resource,
called STEP-Net, has been created to help early literacy specialists access
resources and tools and to exchange information and promising practices.
The President also has made accountability a guiding principle of this
Administration. In keeping with that principle, we are working to make
sure that we measure the outcomes of our efforts, not merely processes
and procedures. I think we all agree that in the end, the most important
indicator of any program’s efficacy is whether it is, in fact, helping
those it is intended to help. As such, Good Start, Grow Smart
calls for not only improving and strengthening the Head Start program
through intense, large-scale efforts in the areas of early language and
literacy, but also for a method to track the results of our efforts.
Consequently, this fall we began implementing assessments of the school
readiness of all the four-year old children in Head Start, with 436,000
children currently represented in the fall data. The Head Start National
Reporting System (NRS) was developed after extensive consultation with
the field and with the advice of technical experts, and was extensively
field-tested before being implemented in local programs. The NRS focuses
on the educational measures Congress identified in the 1998 reauthorization
of Head Start and where existing measures could best meet scientific standards.
Moreover, the NRS does not duplicate information or research strategies
already underway in FACES or in the Congressionally-mandated Head Start
Impact Study, the results of which are not yet available.
Information from the National Reporting System will be used not to “grade”
programs, but to help us identify which programs are achieving good outcomes
for children and which may require additional training and technical assistance
in order to ensure that all Head Start programs are providing a high quality
early childhood experience for the children under their charge.
Historically, the system of early care and education in the United States
has been fragmented. For too long now, child care programs and early education
programs have existed in isolation from one another. Indeed, a 1999 study
by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found sixty-nine Federal programs,
administered by nine different Federal agencies and departments, provided
or supported education and care for children under age 5. GAO noted that
when multiple agencies manage multiple early childhood programs, mission
fragmentation and program overlap can occur and thereby create an environment
in which programs do not serve participants as efficiently or effectively
State child care and education administrators interviewed by GAO reported
that factors impeding collaboration at the State level include differing
eligibility requirements; “turf” issues, such as concerns
about losing program authority; lack of accurate or complete information
on various programs; and the lack of funding-support collaborative strategies.
State officials expressed concerns that their power or authority would
be reduced by collaboration, and that they would be unwilling to share
The creation of an integrated, well-coordinated early care and education
system for low-income children has broad support from members of the early
childhood field, the business community and policymakers. The National
Governors’ Association (NGA), for example, strongly supports developing
collaborative partnerships and increasing coordination of services as
a means of creating a seamless and accessible system of care for low-income
children and their parents.
Despite the agreement, the reality is quite different in most States.
Although many States have demonstrated significant interest in, and commitment
to, building strong early childhood systems in recent years, no State
has a comprehensive system of early care and education that makes high
quality services available to all low-income families who want them for
To address these issues, the President’s FY 2005 budget seeks to
fund, through a competitive demonstration, up to 9 State pilots in order
to begin to identify multiple approaches for a statewide coordinated,
integrated system of early childhood services for low-income children
and their families.
The major goal of this demonstration is to implement better coordination
across programs in order to improve access to high quality early childhood
services that lead to school readiness of low-income children. Inherent
in this goal is the need to eliminate duplication and improve collaboration
within communities while raising the standards of quality across Head
Start, child care, State pre-k, and other settings where economically
disadvantaged children spend time.
This demonstration would be offered through full and open competition
among interested applicant-States. In these demonstrations, we hope to
identify models of State effectiveness in creating and supporting a more
integrated infrastructure for effective early childhood services for low-income
children and their families.
In order for a State’s demonstration plan to be approved, it would
have to commit to continue to serve at least as many Head Start eligible
children with Head Start funds as are currently enrolled in Head Start;
develop and implement standards that meet or exceed current Head Start
standards; maintain existing State funding for preschool programs; provide
comprehensive services – including health, parental and social services
– to children supported with Head Start funds; and conduct an evaluation
of the demonstration. Forty-five million dollars would be available to
help States offset the costs of administering this demonstration program.
In conclusion, I can assure you that the Administration is committed to
strengthening the quality of Head Start and improving the coordination
of services to benefit school readiness for low-income preschool children.
Research evidence is clearly showing that we can do better in helping
low-income children achieve in all early childhood programs not just in
Head Start and we must do better.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your interest in hearing about early childhood
research related to Head Start and for providing me the opportunity to
share our vision for strengthening the program.
Last Revised: March 25, 2004