A dozen experts gathered around a conference table at the White House this week to evaluate the President’s initiative, “Strengthening Head Start.” Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, who leads the Washington, D.C. based Beverly LaHaye Institute and is an authority on domestic policy issues, participated in the roundtable discussion with the President’s Domestic Policy advisor, the Honorable Margaret Spellings. The participants all leaders representing diverse groups of advocates, practitioners, and analysts agreed on the critical importance of early childhood nurturing and development as a springboard for success in life. Participants also agreed that numerous good things are going on around the nation and that the goal of “leaving no child behind” is laudable; all children should be able to read at grade level by 3rd grade.
The hour-long discussion centered around the fact that only 23% of children who go through the Head Start program are at national norms in terms of school readiness. The participants were asked to brainstorm ways that Head Start will produce better results specifically, to react to the practicality and effectiveness of the President’s initiative.
Discussants agreed on the need for better coordination among local, statewide and national leaders, more consistent standards and accountability, greater community and parental involvement, increased focus on outcomes and addressing the variety of current deficits, increased flexibility at the local and state levels so that a specific Head Start program can have the flexibility to meet unique needs such as having predominantly children who speak English as a second language, having specific criteria and standards as goals for baseline knowledge and development, focusing on the whole child in terms of both behavioral and cognitive development, and eliminating barriers of cultural diversity.
There was also agreement on the necessity for coordination so that any improvements would build on the program’s current strengths rather than “reinventing the wheel.” There were questions about state infrastructures that are supporting early childhood programs and questions about whether there is bipartisan support among the governors and on the Hill for improving Head Start. There have been discussions and hearings in the House and others are planned for early June. The Senate is still having internal discussions.
Dr. Crouse commented on Head Start, “Head Start currently leaves too many of its children unready for school. The status quo is not adequately preparing enough Head Start children for success in life. This is harmful not just to those children that are left behind, but also for other children who will join them in the public schools, whose progress will be hampered by the necessity for remedial efforts for their classmates and the behavioral problems of their classmates. The public schools cannot be effective when so many children are ill-prepared both behaviorally and cognitively. Holding States accountable for high quality programs and fiscal responsibility is a minimum responsibility of any efforts to strengthen Head Start.”
Crouse added, “One of the best things that the President is doing for disadvantaged children is his marriage initiative. When children have the advantage of living with a married mother and a father, their safety net is stronger; research is unequivocal that their outcomes are dramatically more positive and their future is brighter. The President’s two-pronged approach to the problems of disadvantaged children (the marriage initiative and the initiative to strengthen Head Start) provides a ‘whole child’ dimension that will both strengthen their homelife and give them a boost at school.”