Head Start:

Curriculum Use and Individual Child Assessment in Cognitive and Language Development

GAO-03-1049: Published: Sep 12, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2003.

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To enhance Head Start's contribution to the school readiness of children from low-income families, the 1998 amendments to the Head Start Act provided for updating the Head Start performance standards to ensure that when children leave the program, they have the basic skills needed to start school. Head Start's performance standards for education and early childhood development require that the programs' curricula support each child's cognitive and language development, including emergent literacy skills. In preschool children, cognitive and language development refers to the fundamental abilities needed to reason and to speak a language. Skills in emergent literacy are the precursors to reading, such as learning the letters of the alphabet. The curriculum Head Start programs use must meet the definition for a written curriculum in Head Start's performance standards. Programs have the option of developing their own curriculum, using a curriculum developed locally or by the state education agency, and adopting or adapting a model developed by an educational publisher. Programs also may use teacher mentoring and individual child assessment to help implement the curriculum. As reauthorization of Head Start approached, Congress asked us to answer questions about Head Start programs' efforts to prepare children for school: (1) to what extent have Head Start programs made progress in meeting performance standards for cognitive and language development since they took effect in January 1998? (2) to what extent has local Head Start programs' use of curricula changed since the performance standards for children's cognitive and language development were issued? (3) to what extent have local Head Start programs used teacher mentoring and individual child assessments to support curriculum planning?

We found that data from Head Start compliance reviews conducted during 2000-02 indicated that most programs met performance standards for overall curriculum and for cognitive and language development. Of all 1,532 programs in HHS's 10 regions, HHS determined that the highest percent found out of compliance with any one of seven specific performance standards for cognitive and language development was 10 percent. Among the programs cited for compliance issues related to these standards, the areas most in need of improvement included (1) using classroom activities and materials that were sufficiently adapted to each child's developmental level and (2) using continuous observation and assessment to support each child's instruction in cognitive and literacy skills. For the most part, Head Start teachers reported that children were in programs that used a specific curriculum or combinations of curricula; in 1998 and 2000, the largest percentages were in programs that used either High Scope or Creative Curriculum. Different methodologies for each survey precluded making comparisons over time. In 2000, children were more likely to listen to stories for which they see print, to learn about prepositions, new words, the conventions of print and letters, and to retell stories on a daily or almost daily basis, than to experience other language development activities, such as working on phonics, writing their name, or learning about rhyming words and word families. Of those who had a mentor, teachers of about two-thirds of Head Start children received mentoring visits, weekly or bi-weekly. In 2000, teachers of an estimated 78 percent of Head Start children used individual assessments in their small group instruction and in overall curriculum planning. Almost 90 percent of Head Start children received individual assessments in cognitive and language development. About half were assessed in mathematics and emergent literacy. The children received individual assessments at least once a year.

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