Last week, the Department of Education released draft guidelines of the selection criteria for the long-awaited Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). The $500 million competition is part of $700 million in new Race to the Top funding from the 2011 budget. States are eligible for $50 – $100 million, depending on population. Applications will be due in October, with awards distributed by the end of the year.
When I say that the competition is long-awaited, I mean it. As someone who worked in early childhood education, I know that early childhood usually plays second fiddle to K-12. Programs are not coordinated between agencies, funding is always scarce, and basic care is too often accepted rather than high-quality programs that encourage children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.
This reality gives credence to the belief that early childhood programs are more about babysitting than learning. Based on the ever-growing research that exposure to high-quality early learning can have substantial positive effects on children’s success in school and life, states and local communities have been working to change this notion of early childhood education.
The idea of RTT-ELC was first promoted on the campaign when President Obama pledged to invest $10 billion in early intervention and education programs, including a competition – analogous to Race to the Top– that would reward states leading the nation in promoting access to high-quality early learning and aligning these programs with K-12 systems.
Successful applications will be built around two essential priorities that present distinct challenges for states – clearly, there’s a reason it’s called Early Learning Challenge. First, the state must adopt early learning standards and use these standards to assess whether children are “school-ready” upon kindergarten entry. Developing standards won’t be the main issue here for states – it’s using the standards and developing appropriate assessments for young children that fully measure readiness.
Challenge One: Unlike K-12 education, the early childhood landscape is diverse. You have public programs, like Head Start and state pre-K programs. Or children can attend private preschools that are licensed by the state, which can range from half-day programs in church basements to child care centers that operate at all hours. Children could also attend programs that operate in the provider’s home or be left in the care of family members or neighbors. While it’s relatively easy to implement early learning standards in a state’s public pre-K, it is a much harder task to ensure these standards are the framework for learning in other kinds of settings.
Challenge Two: Developing early childhood assessments can be even more difficult than implementing the standards they are based upon. Five-year-olds can’t complete written assessments like 3rd graders, let alone have the attention span to do so. Assessments for young children are often administered orally by their teacher, so it is critical that they are simple to administer and score and the results easy to interpret and use. A simple checklist will not provide the rich information teachers need to assess progress towards school readiness and adjust their classroom practice accordingly. Further, teachers will need to be supported and trained not only in giving the assessment, but also in using the results.
Challenge Three: Beyond the mechanics of administering assessments, another challenge is validly measuring readiness. School readiness goes beyond cognitive knowledge – like knowing the alphabet– to encompass other important skills. Sure, children should be assessed on their pre-literacy knowledge. But social-emotional development may be even more important to their ultimate success in school. Children need to be able to listen and follow directions, play and cooperate with others, and communicate effectively; these kinds of foundational skills give children the tools to learn academic content. Designing a meaningful and comprehensive assessment of readiness is tough and will require a very different mindset than developing the kinds of tests that are used in the elementary grades.
The second priority of RTT-ELC is that states must have a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS). A QRIS defines quality standards for programs, uses assessors to evaluate the level of quality based on the standards, and then assigns early learning programs a rating that can be communicated easily to parents. Often, there are incentives for providers to participate, including cash awards, mentoring and coaching, scholarship programs, and higher child care subsidy rates for higher levels of quality. Awards from RTT-ELC could go a long way to build and sustain these supports, but the guidelines may limit winners to only the most sophisticated – and well-funded – states.
Challenge Four: States are requested to either provide evidence which validates their QRIS or a plan to do so, demonstrating that there is a distinction in the quality between the different ratings that translates to child outcomes. In other words, are children that attend the highest-rated programs more school-ready than children who attended programs that rated lower? Given the nebulous concept of school readiness, this will be challenging to assess, in addition to the fact that children experience early learning programs in very different ways. For example, one child may attend a full-day program every day, while another child attends only three days a week. Similarly, one child attends a preschool for a year, but another child only attended two months. Gathering this level of detail about children’s exposure to each program and accounting for it in a validation study will be challenging – and expensive – for states.
Given how tight state budgets are and that funding for early education nearly always loses out to K-12, RTT-ELC, on its surface, will be appealing to states. However, many states may find the challenges I have described and others prohibitive to their success in the competition. With only enough funding for five to ten states, most states will be left to attack these challenges – and provide the resources to do so – on their own. While additional rounds of Race to the Top encouraged unsuccessful states to make reforms and apply again, RTT-ELC appears to be a high-stakes, one-shot deal. Which brings us to…
Challenge Five: $500 million for RTT-ELC is far short of $10 billion, and further investment in early childhood will be needed to help the remaining states catch up and capitalize on the potential of high-quality child development programs. Otherwise, many children will continue to be dropped off not at an early learning program, but at the babysitter’s club.