Early Childhood ProgramsCharacteristics Affect the Availability of School Readiness Information Gao ID: HEHS-00-38 February 28, 2000
The federal government spent about $14 billion in 1997 on programs devoted to early childhood education and care. These programs have various goals and provide different services and support to children and their families. Because of this large federal investment and the attention now being given to early childhood experiences, there is interest in the effectiveness of early childhood education and care programs, especially with respect to preparing children to enter school-known as "school readiness." This report (1) categorizes federal early childhood education and care programs for a better understanding of the federal involvement in achieving school readiness and (2) discusses available information on the effectiveness of selected programs in contributing to school readiness.
GAO noted that: (1) federal early childhood education and care programs can be divided into three broad categories: (a) those that fund early childhood education and care settings, such as day care centers, in-home care, or school-sponsored pre-kindergarten programs; (b) those that fund support services to early childhood education and care settings, such as subsidizing meals served in day care centers; and (c) those that support child care for working families through provisions in the tax code; (2) programs in the first category could potentially have the greatest influence on children's readiness for school; (3) within this category, however, programs vary in their emphasis on school readiness; (4) some programs, such as Head Start, have a strong emphasis on early childhood education and teach children skills and behaviors that help them become ready to enter school; (5) other programs, including the Child Care and Development Fund, may contribute to the education and care of young children while subsidizing the cost of child care for low-income parents but do not have school readiness as an explicit program goal; (6) still other programs, like Title I and Social Services Block Grant, provide funds for a variety of services that can include early childhood education and care; (7) the availability of information on the four programs' effects on school readiness is associated with whether their primary purpose or goal is related to school readiness and whether the majority of program funds is directed toward early childhood education and care; (8) for example, outcome data on children's readiness for school were available for Head Start, which has program goals related to school readiness and devotes the majority of its budget to early childhood education and care; (9) the data for Head Start show that participating children had mastered many of the skills and behaviors on which they were tested to assess their readiness for school; (10) the three other programs GAO reviewed had weaker links to goals related to school readiness or directed most of their funds to purposes other than early childhood education and care; and (11) this may explain why the agencies had not collected the kind of data needed to determine the program's effect on school readiness.