With its 50th anniversary this year, Head Start agencies have a long history of preparing children for school. Each spring, children “graduate” from Head Start with higher academic and social skills than when they entered the program. However, they still lag far behind 5-year-olds from more prosperous families, and there is conflicting evidence on program effectiveness.
As one of the reforms made under the Improving Head Start School Readiness Act of 2007, Head Start agencies are now required to develop school readiness goals and evaluate children’s progress towards these goals. Agencies had always been required to work on school readiness; what is new is the requirement that each of the 1,700 grantees set locally defined goals, track progress toward goals at least three times a year, and use data in program planning.
A year ago, a team of Urban Institute researchers asked program directors, teachers, and parents what they thought about the school readiness goals requirements. We expected to hear considerable groaning about the additional paperwork associated with the new requirements.
Instead, we were surprised to find that 93 percent of program directors agreed that “having school readiness goals will be useful,” and none disagreed (7 percent neither agreed nor disagreed). Goals and associated data were seen as particularly useful for informing professional development and helping teachers plan classroom activities.
When we visited programs and spoke directly to teachers, they also were fairly positive about the new requirements. Tracking children’s outcomes against specific goals helped them plan their instruction, identify needs of individual children, talk about school readiness with parents, and identify areas where they needed additional training and support. For example, teachers in one program asked for more science training based on the assessment data.
Teachers did point out that collecting and documenting data on child outcomes takes time out of already busy days. At the end of one interview, a teacher ran to her car to show me the volumes of paper she was expected to fill in for each child at least three times a year. Even so, she was not opposed to the requirement, because she thought it was good for the children in her program.
And the parents we spoke with were universally pleased to get regular updates on how their child was progressing in his or her readiness for school.
Because our study did not collect child outcomes, we cannot say whether setting school readiness goals leads to measurable gains in children’s readiness for school. What we can say is that Head Start program managers and teachers have largely embraced the new requirements and that they view school readiness goals and data as useful in their daily work with needy children.
Julia Isaacs has spent the past 30 years working on child and family policy she is an author and contributor to Urban Institute’s Metro Trends blog.