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Role for Chapter 1 in Early-Child Programs Urged

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School systems should channel Chapter 1 aid into improving the overall quality of early-childhood programs, including kindergarten, to ease the transition to school and sustain children's early gains, a new study suggests.

The study, part of a two-volume set of reports based on in-depth observations of early-childhood programs serving predominantly low-income children, was transmitted to Congress last week by the U.S. Education Department.

The first study, submitted late last fall but not widely released, examined 119 early-childhood programs, including Head Start and child-care centers and public school pre-kindergarten programs, in five geographically diverse sites.

The newer study examined a subset of 55 pre-K classrooms funded under the federal Chapter 1 remedial-education program.

Both studies cited a wide range of activities across programs and rated overall quality as at least adequate. But they also noted that significant shares of the programs did not offer daily activities to spur children's interest in mathematics, language, and science. Another concern cited was insufficient exploratory play, small-group interaction, and individual attention.

The Chapter 1 study found that contrary to "commonly expressed concerns'' about school-based programs, the Chapter 1-funded preschools generally had highly trained teachers and strong parental involvement.

But the study, which observed some 750 children in preschool and followed a subset of 131 into 222 different kindergarten classes in 84 schools, raised concern that many children moved to kindergartens that were less "developmentally appropriate'' and of lower quality than their preschools.

It also noted that, while Chapter 1 preschools tended to be of higher quality than community-based child-care centers, they were less likely to offer full-day programs.

Those findings--coupled with the fact that the study found "little evidence'' that public school pre-kindergartens do a better job of easing children's transition to school than do other types of programs--"suggest a role for Chapter 1 in planning services for low-income children,'' the report maintains.

Use Funds Selectively

Some experts argue that Chapter 1 aid, most of which is spent in elementary schools, should be more concentrated on early-years services to prevent the need for later remediation. (See Education Week, Dec. 8, 1993.)

But the study suggests that to "maximize'' children's readiness for school, districts should consider other options besides a "freestanding'' Chapter 1 preschool program. The alternatives include funding slots for children in existing programs of high quality, working with other providers to offer full-day care, improving kindergarten programs, and fostering coordination.

"There is an agenda here for you to systematically look at the quality of pre-K and K in your community, and then decide where Chapter 1 funds can be best used,'' said Patricia S. Seppanen, the director of the study for the RMC Research Corporation, the main subcontractor for the Chapter 1 part of the study.

John Love, who helped launch the study at RMC and is now a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, said the study dramatizes the effects of discontinuity between preschool and school practices.

"Because all the children were in Chapter 1 programs, you would expect it would optimize the conditions for continuity,'' he said, adding that the study showed "it was still not as much as we need.''

Head Start Out Ahead

Using existing as well as new observational measures developed for the study, the first volume of the report noted only small variations in the quality of the Head Start, child-care, and public school pre-K programs in the study.

Those programs may be better than average, observers note, because subsidized programs are usually rated more highly than other child-care centers in terms of measures such as child-staff ratios.

Jean I. Layzer, a senior associate at Abt Associates Inc., and the principal investigator for the preschool study, said the "most startling thing was how similar'' the programs looked. But she noted that Head Start centers were generally the highest rated and had the most consistent level of quality.

The researchers found that lower child-staff ratios and more teacher education were linked with better adult-child interaction. They also noted, however, that the Head Start results show "it may be possible to achieve some of the benefits of higher education'' through pre-service and in-service training.

The report also suggests that training teachers on the "subtle'' factors that contribute to quality would do more than slightly reducing child-staff ratios to improve curriculum and grouping practices across programs.

Copies of "Observational Study of Early Childhood Programs, Volume I, Life in Preschool,'' and "Final Report, Volume II, Observational Study of Chapter 1-Funded Early Childhood Programs,'' are available without charge from the Planning and Evaluation Service, U.S. Education Department, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Room 3127, Washington, D.C. 20202-8240.

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