Education Funding Opinion

Too Soon to Celebrate New Early Learning Challenge Race to Top Funds

By Sara Mead — May 25, 2011 5 min read
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Big Race to the Top announcement today from Secretaries Duncan and Sebelius: Of the $700 appropriated by Congress, $500 will be used for a new “Race to the Top--Early Learning Challenge” competition, and $200 will be open for competition among the 9 states that were “Runners Up” in RTT round 2.

The decision to create a separate early childhood competition, as opposed to folding early childhood into the original Race to the Top program, isn’t particularly surprising to anyone who’s been following this issue--the FY2011 appropriations legislation clearly contemplates this, and both Congressional early childhood supporters and the early childhood community have been pushing hard for the administration to use the money for a separate early childhood competition, modeled off the administration’s previously proposed Early Learning Challenge Grant program, which was originally included in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act but jettisoned at the last minute due to rising Pell costs.

But the administration’s decision to devote the lion’s share of RTT funds to early childhood is news--and is being hailed as a big win by early childhood advocates, the achievement of a long-held objective and validation that early childhood is a priority for this administration.

While early childhood advocates are hailing the administration’s decision, there is a real question about whether or not this program will actually generate meaningful progress and improvement for young children.

Many in the media and education reform worlds have assumed this is a “pre-k program"--but it’s not. As defined in legislative language, this is not a program primarily about pre-k, as in educational programs designed to prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for success in school. Rather, this is a program that is focused in building integrated statewide systems of early childhood care and education for children from birth through age 5. Specifically, the legislation requires states to address three factors:

(1) Increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs; (2) Design and implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning programs and services; and (3) Ensure that any use of assessments is consistent with the recommendations of the National Research Council's reports on early childhood.

And the administration’s rhetoric in talking about these programs has emphasized improving quality across the continuum of childcare settings and integrating comprehensive services for young children (including health, nurse home visiting, and mental health) as much as or more than educational quality in early childhood settings.

I’m concerned that, unless the administration designs the competition criteria to also emphasize quality instruction for preschool-aged students, they could squander an opportunity to lay a real foundation for improved student achievement. Research shows that the quality of instruction is seriously lacking in many preschool settings--even those that meet other standards of quality. And without addressing that, greater coordination and expanded access alone will not fuel long-term improvement in children’s learning. The focus on “coordination” and “systems,” while sensible, is quite broad--perhaps too much so to really focus states’ efforts on activities and programs that will produce greatest impact for kids. Until the more detailed criteria are published, it’s hard to know.

Details of competition criteria are still being formulated, and--given the breadth and vagueness of the legislative criteria--will be critical to determining whether or not this program really fuels long-term progress for young children. Due to short timelines the administration has chosen to forgo a formal comment period, as was held for the original RTT competition, and to instead solicit comments via a website. It will be interesting to see how this novel process plays out--some stakeholders have expressed skepticism about the approach, particularly the administration’s decision to limit the lengths of comments that may be contributed to 1,000 words.

I will most likely submit comments through the formal process, but will offer three suggestions here for how the administration can maximize the impact of the early learning challenge competition:

First, the criteria should require states to have in place a definition of “high-quality early learning programs” that emphasizes instructional quality for pre-k programs, including use of effective instructional practices and strategies; clearly articulated and content-rich curricula; and use of data to monitor children’s learning progress.

Second, the criteria should require states to demonstrate that they have strategies to increase the supply of high-quality providers serving infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and should specifically award states “points” for: 1) allowing high-performing traditional and chartered public schools to receive per-pupil funding through the state funding formula to serve infants, toddlers, and preschoolers; 2) having solid plans to identify and support the expansion of high-quality early learning providers (including community-based, Head Start, for-profit, and public school providers); and 3) giving identified high-quality providers greater flexibility to braid child care, Head Start, pre-k and elementary and secondary funds to better serve more youngsters, and eliminating barriers to doing so (such as state policies that reassess eligibility for childcare subsidies on a monthly basis).

Third, criteria for the “systems” component should focus on rewarding states that have done the most with their Early Childhood Advisory Councils under the Head Start Reform Act, and pushing/supporting states to take those efforts to the next level--without overly dictating what that system-building must look like, since state situations and needs differ. Ultimately, definition of quality and building quality supply must be non-negotiables, but how states create systems to facilitate and coordinate that should be open to innovation--particularly since we have very little evidence as to which strategies are more effective than others in this latter area (but lots around what real quality and effective practice look like).

The administration is expected to release the formal notice of applications in late summer, and states will likely have relatively short timeline to turn their applications around. I’ll keep following this and writing about it here as things develop.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.