Report Finds Mixed Results From Early-Ed. Competitive Grants

By Lillian Mongeau — January 14, 2015 3 min read
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Early education programs throughout the country have grown thanks to competitive federal grants like Race To The Top-Early Learning Challenge and Investing in Innovation, among others. As the grants come to a close, a recent report finds that while grant winners often failed to achieve all of their ambitious goals, many made significant progress.

After Winning, Then What,” released by New America, a Washington think tank, looks at four early-education programs that expanded as a result of winning competitive federal grants. With the new Republican Congress taking their seats in Washington this month, the November report on the Obama administration’s signature education funding mechanism seems particularly relevant.

The report profiles Washington state’s effort to build its preschool quality rating system and implement new kindergarten-entry assessments; Detroit’s attempt to improve family and friend care; the University of Minnesota’s work to expand a successful public preschool mode; and a San Antonio neighborhood’s effort to reinvent itself starting with better kindergarten preparation for its youngsters.

Each project was funded primarily through an Obama administration federal competitive grant. While each program made progress—sometimes significant progress—towards its goals, report authors Paul Nyhan and Abbie Lieberman concluded that one of the primary keys to success was flexibility.

“Even the most detailed and thought-out plans are likely to run into challenges along the way,” write the authors. “The ability to adapt plans and address changing needs is key to successful implementation.”

Flexibility isn’t a quality often associated with federal funding, and it remains to be seen how these programs, some of which stepped back from their original definitions of success, will be viewed by the various federal departments that awarded the funds. In many cases, though, the report showed that a willingness to change course slightly could lead to success

Perhaps the most striking example of the importance of this quality comes from the case study of the University of Minnesota’s Investing in Innovation grant to expand one of the most well-regarded public preschool models in the country—the Chicago Child-Parent Centers—to districts throughout the Midwest.

Built on a foundation of parent engagement, the centers have an excellent track record of boosting achievement for their students. School leaders have been open and receptive to adding the centers, according to the report. But in the first year of the grant, Chicago teachers went on strike for eight days and the district closed 50 schools, including several with Child-Parent Centers, putting a real dent in the efforts to expand the program in its signature city.

Despite the setbacks, the grantees persisted, opening preschool classrooms at 26 sites serving 2,350 students in five districts in two states in two years. An enthusiastic superintendent and receptive school leaders in St. Paul, Minn., helped the grantees reach these benchmarks.

Preliminary student acheivement results have been encouraging, according to the report.

“The most important test, though, will come 30 years from now, when researchers will learn if early intervention from pre-K through 3rd grade led to long-term success among alumnae,” the report states.

Grantees are hoping for results for those who have gone through the program that mirror results found by researchers who have studied the Child-Parent Centers of the past: higher high school graduation and home ownership rates, and lower drug use and incarceration rates.

The whole reason University of Minnesota faculty went after the Investing in Innovation grant in the first place was that funding for the existing Chicago centers had significantly declined since the 1980s. The short-term grant, $15 million over five years, will run out in 2016. What will replace it?

This question haunts all of the programs profiled in the report, and that’s why it’s important to continue to pay attention to the projects even as the initial funding fades away, Nyhan and Lieberman write. The money from this round might be nearly gone, but the competitive funding model may be here to stay.

“Although these particular initiatives are less likely to receive substantial funding in this next Congress, the focus on outcomes and evidence-based funding is almost certain to continue into the future,” report authors conclude.

If so, understanding whether it’s a model that works to create sustainable change will be critical.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.