Early Childhood Opinion

Moving the Agenda on the Early Learning Challenge

By Sharon Lynn Kagan & Kristie Kauerz — July 11, 2011 6 min read
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With the recent announcement of a $500 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, or RTT-ELC, commitment by the federal government, American early education has taken a huge step forward.

After several rounds of disappointment, most early educators are celebrating the challenge. And why not? For the first time in our national history, two federal agencies (the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services) are coming together to administer a bold, significant, and innovative effort that will meaningfully support the development of an early-learning system for children from birth to age 5.

Smartly, it focuses on elements best known for producing sustained outcomes for children and most necessary for system-building (e.g., evidence-based systems of professional development, aligned standards for early learning and development, age and developmentally appropriate curriculum and assessment systems, family engagement, a focus on health and safety, and a system of screening and referrals). It reverses decades of underinvestment in children prior to their formal entry into school. It positions American early-childhood education globally by acknowledging that the task of government is to provision not simply for programs, but for their quality and equitable distribution across populations. As such, the intentions of the Early Learning Challenge command and deserve praise and support. Federal officials’ goal is to release RTT-ELC grant applications later this summer and to award funding by the end of the year. (“States Face Challenges in Early-Ed. Race to Top Scramble,” July 13, 2011.)


But, unfortunately, because the initiative deals with the fragmented and underresourced early-childhood field, the RTT-ELC will face at least four stiff, important, and consequential challenges.

First, its focus on birth to age 5 is controversial. How, some ask, when developmental science supports learning from birth through age 8 as a continuum, can the RTT-ELC focus only on birth to 5? Are we not leaving out full-day kindergarten and the early-elementary grades, crucial years of education that lay foundations for later success but are badly in need of improvement themselves? On the other end of the age debates, some cite the nation’s woeful and historic neglect of infants and toddlers and call for a birth-to-age-3 focus.

Our stance is clear: No age group is more or less important in the early-childhood continuum, but the RTT-ELC can’t be expected to be all things to all children. While we celebrate this $500 million investment, this is a relatively small pot of money compared with past proposals. For this reason, we need the RTT-ELC to focus, as it does, on birth to age 5. To create robust, meaningful, and lasting connections with the K-12 system, and alignment and continuity that will benefit all children, we need to build and bolster stronger birth-to-5 systems. Without such systems of early care and education in place, alignment with K-12 is approached program by program and school by school, and relies heavily on individual initiative.

Focusing on birth to age 5 is a key ingredient to building a functional, coherent, and sturdy continuum of learning for children from birth to age 8 (and beyond). Indeed, the draft RTT-ELC guidelines, released July 1, require applicants to explicitly address how their birth-to-5 efforts will lay the foundation for greater opportunities to link and align with K-12.

This is not a case of “Either we care about birth to 5, or we care about birth to 8.” Let’s be clear: We all care about both, and we all want children to have strong systems that support lifelong learning and development. Let’s let the challenge, as it purports to do, strengthen the infrastructure and service links for birth to 5, links that will ultimately support greater alignment with K-3 and the development of enriched birth-to-age-8 commitments.

We call on Congress to make the Early Learning Challenge more than today's darling and more than a one-time infusion of money."

Second, the RTT-ELC must include all states and not restrict its focus to render high-performing states as its sole or primary beneficiaries. Favoring top performers was raised as an inequity in the original Race to the Top, but the case is more pronounced in early education, where inconsistent investments and commitments create a highly uneven early-childhood base across states in which the quality and quantity of services offered vary dramatically.

Yes, there may be some states that easily qualify for the Early Learning Challenge, but there will be many for which the program is a considerable reach. Although it has been argued that the very existence of a competitive fund raises interest and generates capacity, we are skeptical with regard to early education. To avoid exacerbating inequities between states, we recommend that the RTT-ELC be divided into two categories, with some of the funds made accessible to all states that demonstrate the capacity to use them well and the remaining funds competitively honoring the accomplishments of leadership states.

Third, lacking the comprehensive governance and finance mechanisms associated with K-12 education, the early-childhood field, even today, remains politically and economically fragile. Policymakers often position early-childhood efforts as quick-fix, here-today-gone-tomorrow policies and programs; this has debilitating consequences for children, parents, and a field that begs for continuity and sustainability.

This must stop. We call on Congress to make the Early Learning Challenge more than today’s darling and more than a one-time infusion of money. The RTT-ELC needs to live in perpetuity, with provisions for sustainable funding over time. Moreover, the RTT-ELC needs to be conceptualized as the irrefutable cornerstone of educational reform, an essential prelude to all K-12 and higher education advancements.

As such, we call on Congress and the rest of the federal government to legitimate early-learning systems that have strong linkages to and alignment with K-12 education. Doing so with the RTT-ELC is only the first step: Early learning must be incorporated with comparable gusto into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and subsequent reauthorizations of pertinent federal legislation, including but not limited to the Higher Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Fourth and finally, once the regulations for the RTT-ELC are established, the proposals written, and the funds awarded, the hard work of implementation falls to states. To foster effective implementation, we urge the federal government to respect the rich diversity of this work, to support multistate collaborations, and to focus on the field’s human capital. The Early Learning Challenge should encourage states to form innovative partnerships and consortia in which they can learn from one another’s successes and grapple collaboratively with transcendent issues (e.g., standards, assessment, and governance).

Moreover, if successful implementation is to take hold, the RTT-ELC must support and strengthen the cadre of early-childhood leaders.

Building strong early-learning systems requires on-the-ground visionaries, tacticians, and strategists who can see the proverbial forests through the trees and can navigate ubiquitous and muddy political and fiscal waters. Clearly, thought must be given to equipping the workforce—both in classrooms and in policy offices—for the kinds of challenges that system-building engenders.

To that end, to our early-childhood colleagues, we say, don’t despair about the ages of the children included in the RTT-ELC; rather, celebrate and capitalize on the opportunity to build a crucial part of the bigger, more comprehensive system we all want. To elected officials and the Obama administration, we say thank you, but don’t stop here. The RTT-ELC must not be your endgame; we need sustained and widespread investments and policies that breed a new system and the leadership to populate it. We must acknowledge that developing an early-learning system is but a first step in ensuring the adequate development of young children.

Beyond the RTT-ELC, the field needs support over time and across states that will durably promote the continuous development of all children in their earliest years, from birth through age 8.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge: Moving the Agenda


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