Early Childhood Opinion

Fox Mulder, Charlie Barone, and the Early Learning Challenge

By Sara Mead — June 20, 2011 2 min read
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DFER’s Charlie Barone has written a really phenomenal post on the ESEA waivers issue and broader state of play on NCLB (seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, click here and don’t return until you have). But in addition to his excellent points on those issues, Charlie’s post also helps frame why I have very mixed feelings about the new RTT Early Learning Challenge Program. Charlie writes:

Likewise, on Race to the Top, at the beginning of their terms in 2009 President Obama and Secretary Duncan knew and made clear what they wanted states to do: repeal state laws that barred the use of student data in teacher evaluations, develop better teacher evaluation systems, lift arbitrary state caps that barred the expansion of high-quality public charter schools, and leverage fundamental reforms in schools that perform persistently poorly. By this time last year, they had gotten those things from more states than most naysayers hoped or thought was possible.

I’m concerned because I can’t say the same thing about the early learning RTT competition. I don’t think anyone can honestly say the administration has made clear what they want states to do. Sure, if you look at the administration’s paper and listen to their rhetoric so far, you know that the purpose of the RTT build statewide early learning systems. But what, concretely does that mean? That’s like if the administration had said, with the original RTT, that they wanted states to narrow achievement gaps and make their education systems better. It’s an extremely broad and diffuse goal that lacks the precision of the original RTT’s crisp mandates to eliminate barriers to linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, adopt common core standards, implement new teacher evaluation systems, and eliminate or raise charter school caps. And without that degree of definition around desired outcomes, it’s far less likely the administration is going to see the same results from early learning challenge, in terms of driving changes in state policy, that it did with the original program. (Not to mention, that there are good reasons to think the original RTT was already too diffuse in its aims, in ways that undermined its ultimate outcomes.)

To be fair, the administration has not yet released detailed criteria for the early learning challenge grant applications, which will most likely provide much great definition around desired goals and outcomes than we’ve seen to date. But recall that, with the original RTT, the administration made darn clear what the bright lines would be long before the criteria came out. The fact that we don’t know that yet with early learning challenge is a cause for concern--particularly since states will be working on a tight timeline to draft the applications, and really need to begin working now (or yesterday) if they’re going to craft truly robust and aggressive plans.

The more I think about early learning challenge, the more I feel like Fox Mulder--I want to believe, but I’m still looking for evidence.

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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.