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House Subcommittee Examines Early Childhood Education Programs

On July 31, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Education Reform held a hearing on the effectiveness of early childhood education programs.

Subcommittee Chair Michael Castle (R-DE) opened the hearing, saying that “recent studies conclude what most have intuitively known for some time, that the successful acquisition of school readiness and learning skills in the first five years of a child’s cognitive development predict a lifetime of future academic success.” He added that, “for these reasons, early childhood education programs enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress,” and noted that this would be the first in a series of hearings on the issue.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), ranking Member on the subcommittee, expressed concerns about the President’s recommendation to “move Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education,” and about “the lack of resources for the Head Start Program.” He added, “The increase of $125 million for Head Start pales in comparison to the increases in the last two years.”

Most of the witnesses at the hearing focused their testimony on the factors that contribute to effective early childhood programs and the changes that should be made to improve the quality of federal early learning programs such as Head Start.

Authorized by Congress in 1965, the Head Start program serves low-income children, ages 3-5, and their families. The goal of the program is to increase the school readiness of young children in low-income families. In 1994, Congress expanded the program to include low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers from birth to age three. The Early Head Start program was established by the 1994 Head Start Reauthorization Act.

Dr. Wade Horn of the Department of Health and Human Services called Head Start “the nation’s largest early childhood education program.” He told the subcommittee that “since 1965, local Head Start programs across the country have served more than 19 million children.” He said that recent major Head Start initiatives “focused a steady investment of funding on strengthening program quality and increasing staff compensation,” resulting in classrooms where “teachers are better trained and proficient in engaging children individually and in helping them develop vocabulary, pre-literacy, and social skills.” He emphasized that in addition to the “focus on learning,” Head Start provides “comprehensive services such as medical, dental, mental health and nutrition services, so that children are ready and able to learn.”

Responding to the concerns of Rep. Kildee, Dr. Horn said, “The President has made clear that he expects much more emphasis on the development of literacy skills in the Head Start program,” he said, adding that, “As part of this initiative, the President has proposed moving Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, where it can be more closely aligned with compensatory education programs, such as the Title I programs, when Head Start students begin formal schooling.”

Representing the Department of Education, Eugene Hickok explained that this issue would be addressed “appropriately during the next Head Start reauthorization,” and added, “In the meantime, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services will coordinate a task force to translate research on learning readiness into action through Head Start and other programs for preschoolers.”

Ron Herndon of the National Head Start Association told the subcommittee that his organization is opposed to “proposals to move Head Start from its current administrative home to the Department of Education.” It would be “the death knell of Head Start,” he stated, and emphasized that Head Start “takes a whole family approach to unraveling the effects of poverty so that both child and parent succeed [in] building better minds and communities.” He added, “I urge you to not let perceived government administrative obstacles impede our collective work in moving Head Start and low-income children and families forward toward success in school and success in life.” He also urged the subcommittee “to make clear that a $125 million increase is not sufficient to either keep pace with inflation, improve quality as promised, or enroll more children.”

In contrast to Dr. Horn’s testimony, Mr. Herndon recommended initiatives that would bolster professional development for Head Start personnel. There is “not one standard that says you must know how to teach a child to read,” he said. “It will take additional resources to train and re-train Head Start and other early childhood teachers who have previously been taught that skills such as knowing letters and numbers were not appropriate to introduce to children until kindergarten or first grade,” he added.

Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-CO) said that he was under the impression that Head Start teachers receive “the lowest pay that you can earn.” Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN) said he thought that Head Start teachers are paid “about $22,000 a year.” He added, “Zookeepers make more than that. We put more value on animals than we do on our children.”

“Spending should be tied to results,” responded Mr. Hickok. “Early childhood is an afterthought,” he said, adding “education begins the day a child is born, and if we’re smart, it never stops.”

Representing the research community, Dr. Deborah Phillips of Georgetown University told the subcommittee that success in early childhood learning is “strongly associated with family income.” She said, “Children living in poverty hear, on average, 300 fewer words per hour than do children in professional families.”

Dr. Phillips described several challenges facing early childhood education programs. “If the child is the engine, then qualified and stable staff is the fuel that drives” these programs, she emphasized, recommending better training for teachers as well as better pay. “The vast majority of preschool children are in programs and settings with adults who have little more than a high school education,” she said. “Why do we tolerate for 3- and 4-year-olds what we would never tolerate for 5-year-olds?” she asked.

“National Labor Statistics data tell us that 40 percent of children under age 5 with an employed mother had mothers in non-traditional jobs with irregular work hours,” she continued, and added, “I would hope that as part of any effort to support the early education and learning of our nation’s children, we will take steps to ensure that parents’ need or mandate to work is not a barrier to their children’s and their own participation in these initiatives.”

Dr. Phillips also cited that “the majority of low-income children are not in Head Start” or other early learning programs. “They are in programs which we refer to as “child care” and which are designed to support parents’ employment, not children’s development,” she said.

“Is it all about resources, about money?” asked Rep. Roemer.

“It is about resources, but not all about resources,” responded Dr. Phillips. “It’s about what we care about in this country. We do know what to do to foster learning. We must own up to what we know,” she said.

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