Education Funding Opinion

What You Need to Know about Final Early Learning Challenge Criteria Released Today

By Sara Mead — August 23, 2011 11 min read
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This afternoon, while most D.C. workers were loitering on sidewalks outside the office buildings from which they’d been evacuated due to an earthquake in Virginia, staff from the White House, Department of Education, and Department of Health and Human Services stayed put to lead a national conference call announcing the release of final criteria and application for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge program.

The final application and criteria released today are significantly different--in a number of key respects--from draft criteria released earlier this summer. Key highlights:


The ELC competition will have only one absolute priority: “Promoting School Readiness for Children with High Needs.” States must address this priority in order to receive a grant. This is a big change from the draft criteria, which had two absolute priorities: “Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness” and “Using Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems to Promote School Readiness. In my read, this is a positive change, because it places emphasizes that the point of ELC the desired outcome of promoting children’s school readiness, rather than the specific strategies ED/HHS want states to use to get there--and other changes in the criteria reflect that as well.

The ELC competition will have two “competitive preference priorities": “Including All Early Learning and Development Systems in the Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System” and “Understanding the Status of Children’s Learning and Development at Kindergarten Entry.” Each competitive preference priority will be worth 10 points, and it appears that states can earn points for both competitive preference priorities (the highest a state can score, including both competitive preference priorities, is 300 points, so these competitive preferences can give states a significant boost in what is likely to be a tight competition). The first competitive preference priority, including all early learning and development systems in QRIS, was included in the draft criteria; the second is new and likely reflects the above mentioned changes in absolute priorities, as well as changes in the grant criteria (described below), both of which have the effect of downplaying the importance of kindergarten entry assessments in the ELC priorities/criteria outside the competitive preference.

There are two “invitational priorities": “Sustaining program effective in the early elementary grades,” and “encouraging private sector support.” This is the same as the draft criteria. States do not get points for addressing these priorities, but can use grant funds for activities that advance them.


There are three eligibility requirements in the final guidance. These are important because states must meet the eligibility criteria in order to be eligible to be considered for an ELC grant. Two of these criteria were in the draft criteria. In order to be eligible a state must:

1.) The Lead Agency must have executed an MOU or other binding agreement with each Participating State Agency that describes the participating agency’s involvement in the grant and proposed activities, and commits the participating agency to use statewide Early Learning and Development Standards, statewide Program Quality Standards, the statewide QRIS, and a statewide Workforce Knowledge and Competency Framework.

2.) The state must State Advisory Council on Early Care and Education that meets the requirements of the Head Start Act.

The final guidelines add a third eligibility criteria:

3.) The State must have submitted in FY 2010 an updated MIECHV State plan and FY2011 Application for formula funding under the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program under the Affordable Care Act.

I am not sure if this criteria would disqualify any states--anyone out there following Nurse Home Visiting, stuff want to let me know, I’d appreciate it.

Selection Criteria

Ok--these are the basis on which state applications will win or lose points that determine whether or not they win ELC. So--big deal. And--big changes from the previously released draft!

The application released today lays out 5 major selection criteria, worth a total of 280 points. These 5 selection criteria further break down into two “Core Areas,” which all applying states must thoroughly address, and three “Focus Areas,” which states must address, but where they have the option of choosing which pieces of the focus area criteria to prioritize.

The two Core Areas are:

Successful State Systems(65 points/22% of total*): This is the section in which a state lays out its overall strategy and goals for improving early childhood education (A)(2) (20 points) and outcomes in the state, and explains how the various agencies in the state will work together to advance that agenda (A)(3) (10 points). This criteria also judges states based on the budget plans they present to use both grant and other funds to achieve the work the commit to in the grant (A)(4) (15 points). It’s also the section in which states will be judged on their past track record and progress in improving early childhood programs--as opposed to what they plan to do in other sections of the grant (A)(1) (20 points). This criterion includes numerous tables which states have to fill out indicating their progress on a variety of systems elements, their history of investment in early childhood programs over the past 5 years, and their baseline numbers of children served in various types of early learning and development programs. Those tables are going to be a beast for states to complete. This section is largely the same as Section (A) of the previous draft criteria, except that it no longer includes a criterion focused on state data systems--which are now included in the focus criteria. One key thing for states to be aware of here: A(3), aligning and coordinating early learning and development across the state, is only worth 10 points on paper, but I’m guessing that it’s going to play out a good deal like the stakeholder buy-in components of RTT did, where those components actually mattered more in the competition than their point totals indicated, because the extent to which judges believe participating state agencies are really bought into the elements of the state’s plan may affect their judgement of whether or not states can actually pull off what they say they will do.

High-Quality, Accountable Programs: This criterion, which is worth the largest number of points in the application (75/25% of total), is mostly about Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. States earn points for developing and adopting statewide QRIS (B)(1) (10 points), promoting participation in QRIS by a wide range of early learning programs/providers (B)(2)(15 points), rating and monitoring early learning and development programs (B)(3) (15 points), and validating the effectiveness of QRIS to improve quality and child outcomes (B)(5)(15 points). But the largest single pot of points in this criteria is actually not for QRIS but for access: criteria (B)(4) offers 20 points for states’ plans to promote high-need children’s access to high-quality early learning and development programs, which includes the state’s strategies to foster continuous improvement in early childhood programs, its strategies to help high-need families access higher quality programs, and the specific targets the state sets to increase the percentage of programs in the top tiers of the QRIS and the percentage of high-need children attending high-quality programs. As I’ve written elsewhere, in many ways QRIS is to Early Learning Challenge what teacher evaluation was to the original Race to the Top. Both are fairly technocratic strategies, based on the idea that measuring quality/performance and providing information about it is a way (or at least an essential prerequisite) to improve quality/effectiveness. And with both teacher evaluations and QRIS the administration is betting big on an idea that makes sense but has limited evidence from practical application showing that it works. Not that that means it’s a bad idea. But people should keep this in mind.

So spelling out a state strategy and committing to QRIS are the two things that all states that want a shot at Early Learning Challenge must do. Then, states have some flexibility to set their own priorities within a set of three “focus areas.” These three focus areas are:

Promoting early learning and development outcomes for children (60 points/20% of total): Within this focus area, states must choose to address at least two (2) of four activities:1) developing and using statewide early learning and development standards; 2) supporting and using comprehensive assessment systems; 3) identifying and addressing children’s health, behavioral, and emotional needs; and 4) engaging and supporting families.

A great early childhood workforce: (40 points/13% of total) States must address at least one of two activities: 1) developing a workforce knowledge and competency framework and progression of credentials, and 2) supporting early childhood educators in improving their skills, knowledge, and abilities. (Note: I have some questions about how this criteria, which appears to make developing workforce knowledge and competency frameworks an option, rather a requirement for states, squares with the eligibility requirements, which require participating state agencies to commit to workforce knowledge and competency frameworks.)

Measuring outcomes and programs: (40 points) States must address at least one of two activities: 1) Understanding the status of children’s learning and development at kindergarten entry, and 2) building or enhancing early learning data systems.

How the Department intends to score these focus areas is important: States can choose to address all the aspects of the focus area, or the minimum number. The total points for the focus area will be divided by the number of aspects the state chooses to address, and states can receive up to that number of points for each activity they decide to address. Thus, states do not get additional points for addressing more components of each focus area, but based on how well they address the components they do address. And it means states will have to be strategic in choosing exactly how many and which of the activities to address in their response to focus criteria.

The decision to divide the selection criteria into core and focus areas--and to allow states to choose which components of the focus areas to address--is a major shift from the draft criteria, which would have required all applicants to detail their plans for data systems, early learning standards, supporting comprehensive assessment, kindergarten readiness assessments, workforce knowledge and competencies, and providing professional development for early childhood educators.

In some ways, I think the shift is a good thing, because it provides greater flexibility for states to prioritize the specific activities in each focus area that they think are most critical to improve children’s learning outcomes. This could avoid some of the perverse consequences of Race to the Top--in which states were being judged on so many different criteria (many of which got answered in pretty boilerplate ways) that it wasn’t always clear what was most important. Letting states pick which activities to focus on is also just probably more realistic than the original draft criteria, given the fairly limited resources that Early Learning Challenge is actually going to provide to states to implement these plans (grants will range from $50-100 million, spread over 5 years, which isn’t much to do all the original criteria asked for).

At the same time, I’m sorry to see that the administration seems to have caved on its original commitment to requiring states to measure outcomes for early childhood programs and to support the use of comprehensive assessments as a tool for improving quality. These requirements received considerable pushback when the draft criteria first came out--in many cases from people who didn’t understand what they meant and immediately jumped to the (false) conclusion that ELC would create a kind of NCLB for toddlers--and the administration seems to have caved in the face of that pushback by making them optional. Nevertheless, the inclusion of kindergarten readiness assessment as a competitive priority, worth 10 points, should still give states a strong incentive to get serious about measuring early learning outcomes at kindergarten entry, and smart states will develop plans to use comprehensive assessments as a tool for improving quality in early childhood settings.

Now that the final criteria are out, the game is afoot, and states are going to start drafting their ELC applications in earnest. Later this week, Kevin Carey and I will be releasing a paper with Brookings that offers some innovative ideas they should consider including in their responses to the “Great Early Childhood Workforce” criteria--more on that Thursday!

*Total based on 300 points, including competitive priority points.

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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.