Billions of dollars are being spent on preschool education for the nation’s poor children, and the effort is failing. Test scores from a representative sample of these children show that they are far behind their more advantaged peers when they enter school. Worse, national data on children who attended Head Start show that their academic skills and knowledge improve only slightly during the Head Start year. They still start school performing far below other students.
In response, the Bush administration and House Republicans have proposed allowing states to exert more control over Head Start to coordinate it with state preschool programs. House Democrats and other Head Start allies charged that Republicans were trying to destroy Head Start to save money. Republicans responded by proposing to allow only a few states to conduct demonstrations of coordinated funding. This proposal too was greeted with hostility, prompting Republicans to drop it. The status quo will be maintained, although Congress appears poised to require some long-term changes in Head Start teacher qualifications.
Four things are needed to improve the school readiness of poor children. First, Congress should clearly express its concern that poor and minority children are far behind and that Head Start is doing too little to eliminate the gap. Second, Congress should adopt a modified version of the Republican proposal by allowing a few states to experiment with improving preschool programs. To do so, states should be given the authority to coordinate Head Start funding with state funding of preschool education. But to be selected for this new authority, states should also be required to present a plan for how they will improve all preschool education in the state. The improvement plan could include better teacher training, better preschool curriculum, more parent involvement, more than one year of preschool attendance, or other reforms. Third, Congress should provide selected states with additional funding to implement their reforms. Fourth, Congress should pay for third-party evaluations of these state experiments.
With no serious changes in Head Start in prospect, and with splintered funding for preschool programs continuing, millions of poor and minority children will still be ill-prepared for the rigors of schooling. States that are now leading the charge in preschool education should be given the opportunity to coordinate all state and federal resources, to obtain new resources, and to experiment with new ways to achieve President Lyndon B. Johnson’s original vision of poor and minority children entering school ready to compete.
Esther Care, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, calls the A-F grading system “nonsense.” “Grades are mere proxies for what we value. What we actually value is our children being prepared for the future,” she said. “We need to find ways in educational assessment to convey information about the degree to which they are ready to venture out and to deal constructively with the huge challenges posed by our 21st century.