Early Childhood

Challenges Lie Ahead for Early-Learning Grant Winners

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 03, 2012 7 min read
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The nine states splitting $500 million in Race to the Top early-learning grants must now deliver on a slate of ambitious promises to improve the quality of early-childhood education for tens of thousands of low-income children who rely on a patchwork of publicly financed child-care and preschool programs.

By awarding millions of federal dollars to the states with winning bids for the Early Learning Challenge grants, the U.S. Department of Education is providing opportunity for—and exerting high-profile pressure on—California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington state to prepare more of their low-income and at-risk children for success as they enter kindergarten.

The states in the winners’ circle—27 other states and the District of Columbia also competed but did not win grants—face many challenges as they try to put into practice their pledges to set standards, improve teacher quality, assess school readiness, and expand access.

“Unknown budgets will be a barrier for many states, and bringing so many different people, agencies, and programs together in ways that they never have before will make meeting all the commitments they’ve made in their plans a big challenge,” said Laura Bornfreund, an early-education policy analyst for the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.


The nine winning states of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge must deliver on an array of ambitious policy changes meant to improve the quality of early-childhood education.

CALIFORNIA Allows 16 “regional consortia” to take the lead on crafting local ratings systems for child-care programs and providers.

DELAWARE Focuses on expanding the number of early-childhood programs serving low-income children that take part in the state’s ratings system, with a goal of 78 percent participation.

MARYLAND Targets additional resources to neighborhoods with high concentrations of Title I schools to increase participation of early-childhood providers in the state’s public-ratings system.

MASSACHUSETTS Provides additional funding and resources to help early-childhood programs move up to higher tiers of quality in state’s rating system and sustain that improvement.

MINNESOTA Expands the public-ratings system, currently in a pilot phase, to early-childhood programs across the state.

NORTH CAROLINA Creates a “transformation zone” in the state’s economically distressed northeastern counties to target extra resources for early childhood.

OHIO Rewards early-childhood programs that receive the highest quality ratings with performance pay, collaborates with Maryland on developing new childhood assessments.

RHODE ISLAND Trains pediatricians and other primary health-care providers to identify children in need of early interventions related to literacy and social and emotional development.

WASHINGTON Expands its public-ratings system beyond a pilot phase to include up to 70,000 children enrolled in various early-childhood education programs.


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Likewise, creating consensus around a definition of school readiness and measuring that is a work in progress in every state. So is ensuring that the new initiatives jump-started with the federal windfall can last beyond the four-year life of the grants, early-childhood experts say.

“All of these states are in for a major undertaking,” Ms. Bornfreund said.

Rating Program Quality

At the heart of every state’s initiative is a plan to design or expand public rating guides that parents and others can use to judge the quality of early-childhood programs. Most states’ systems will use stars to rate programs, similar to the way restaurants and movies are graded.

The guides—called Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, or QRIS—will vary by state, but broadly they must outline standards of quality for early-childhood programs and rate how each program measures up to them. The rating systems must include tiers that clearly delineate the quality of early-education programs. The more standards a program meets, the higher the rating it will receive.

Many of the winning states, including Delaware and Massachusetts, have pledged to provide strong incentives for early-childhood providers to take part in the rating systems by offering financial rewards, professional development, and higher reimbursement rates to those that do.

Maryland and North Carolina are years ahead of most other winners when it comes to having a system in place for rating quality, said Harriet Dichter, the vice president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based early-childhood-advocacy group.

Those two states, along with Massachusetts and Washington, will also benefit from having merged the oversight of their diverse range of early-childhood programs into one office. In many states, multiple agencies oversee myriad public and private early-childhood programs, such as the federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs, state-financed prekindergarten, nonprofit and for-profit centers, and family child-care providers.

“Those are huge assets to have as these states move forward,” Ms. Dichter said. “But every state will be challenged in their efforts to integrate the various pieces of their plans. You don’t create high-quality early-childhood education for at-risk kids by doing only one thing. It all has to work together.”

Ahead of the Game

North Carolina—widely seen as a leader in early-childhood education—has had its rating system for more than a decade, and 78 percent of the state’s providers already participate in it, said C. Robin Britt, the chairman of the state early-childhood advisory council. The state is one of a few that require providers to join in the rating system as a condition of basic licensing. It will make its rating system more rigorous in the upper tiers by, among other changes, adding standards related to family engagement.

“Providers are going to have to have meaningful opportunities for families to be involved with their child’s experience to earn the higher ratings,” Mr. Britt said.

North Carolina is one of three states—Maryland and Minnesota are the others—that will target extra resources to distinct regions. Mr. Britt said North Carolina will set up a “transformation zone” in the state’s northeastern counties where communities are poor and rural.

“We want to home in on these distressed communities where there have historically been very few resources for early childhood,” he said.

A major challenge for North Carolina is the fate of its prekindergarten program. The state legislature slashed spending on prekindergarten last summer—cutting more than 5,000 children out of the program—and added a fee requirement as part of its strategy to close a budget shortfall. A state judge ruled that the fee was unconstitutional, a decision currently under appeal.

In Maryland, early-childhood officials will funnel extra resources to school attendance areas with high concentrations of Title I schools, said Rolf Grafwallner, an assistant state superintendent who oversees early-childhood programs.

“When you are in a low-income neighborhood, there is a tremendous scarcity of high-quality programs for young children,” Mr. Grafwallner said. “Our aim is to get the programs that exist there into [the rating system] and provide supports to them so they can improve and move up the ratings scale.”

Maryland will also partner with Ohio to develop a new kindergarten entry assessment to measure how well young children are prepared for school and how well individual programs have prepared them.

California—a state that many observers did not expect to see among the winners of the federal grants—is taking a regional approach. Sixteen regional “consortia” made up of early-childhood providers and groups like school districts and county offices of education will devise local rating systems based on guidelines provided by the state, said Camille Maben, the director of the child-development division in the California Department of Education.

The state’s standards, or “foundations,” for infant, toddler, and preschooler development, must be incorporated into the local rating systems, including those that are specific to young English-language learners. The local systems must also use a school-readiness tool based on observations of new kindergartners to determine how they are doing in math, language and literacy, and social and emotional development. Those observations will also be used to grade the early-childhood programs that prepared the students.

The local consortia will largely decide which standards must be met before providers can move from one quality tier to the next in the rating systems, Ms. Maben said.

Money Squeeze

But questions about the long-term budget stability and sustainability of the new early-childhood initiatives hang over California more than any other winning state. The state has been mired in a fiscal crisis for five years, a situation that has subjected early-childhood programs to deep spending cuts, Ms. Maben said. It is also the only winning state to be awarded less money than it requested, having received $53 million of its $100 million request. That has prompted a few of the local consortia to reconsider their participation, Ms. Maben said.

“Even with less money to work with, I’ll be surprised if any of them decides not to go forward,” she said. “This is the best bang for the buck when it comes to getting children ready for success in school.”

Ms. Dichter, of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, said the fact that 36 states and the District of Columbia applied for the grants and that most submitted strong applications underscores the need for more investment in early-childhood programs. The recently approved federal budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 appropriates $550 million for a new round of Race to the Top awards in 2012. Early-childhood advocates hope some of that money might be set aside for additional early-learning challenge grants.

“The biggest takeaway from this entire competition is that early childhood needs much more money than what was available in this round of Race to the Top,” Ms. Dichter said. “The pool of applicants was very good beyond the nine winners.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as RTT Early-Learning Winners Have Work Cut Out for Them


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