Early Childhood

Rating Systems Seen Crucial in New Race to Top Bids

By Michele McNeil — August 30, 2011 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education, which is now accepting applications for the $500 million Race to the Top early-learning competition, is telegraphing what it deems the most important part of improving early-childhood programs in a state: developing a public rating system.

Through rules released by the department last week, states now know what it will take for them to win awards of up to $100 million each, grants made possible by a congressional budget deal reached in April.

The overall goal of the competition, said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a telephone briefing with reporters last week, is to make sure “many, many more children enter kindergarten ready to succeed.”

And for states to win, he said, “the bar will absolutely be high.”

Applications are due Oct. 19, and a “handful” of winners will be announced in December, according to Mr. Duncan. Earlier this summer, 36 states and the District of Columbia said they were interested in applying.

To clear the bar for the Early Learning Challenge grants, states will have to craft standards of quality for early-childhood programs, and systems to rate them. The strength of a state’s rating system will be worth 75 points on a 300-point grading scale, the most of any of the five general criteria states must address as they vie for the grants.

Measuring Quality

The rules call for states to make their rating systems public, to link them to state licensing for early-education programs, and to include tiers to differentiate the quality of early-childhood programs. To get full points, states also need to “maximize” the number of programs included in the ratings.

In addition, they would need to adopt policies that provide incentives for providers to improve, including training, financial rewards, and higher reimbursement rates for programs that accept taxpayer subsidies.

Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge

About the competition
Open to states and the District of Columbia, the $500 million grant competition run by the U.S. Department of Education—in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—seeks to increase the number of children, particularly high-needs children, in high-quality early-childhood programs. Governors and the leaders of any state agency applying for the grant must sign the application.

The Education Department is seeking outside peer reviewers who will score the applications on a 300-point scale. States’ proposals will be judged in five categories. The most important, worth 75 points, is a state’s plan for creating a rating system for its early-childhood programs. The other four criteria are: a state’s early-education track record and capacity to implement its plan (65 points); whether the state has high-quality, statewide standards and appropriate assessments for children (60 points); a state’s plan for setting standards for what early-childhood educators should know and how they are credentialed (40 points); and whether a state has a kindergarten-readiness test or an early-education data system (40 points).

Awards will range from $50 million to $100 million, with the most populous states eligible for the biggest awards. Winners will be announced in December.

Spending requirements
Grant money cannot be used to replace or supplant state or local funds. Winning states must agree to participate in technical assistance and share best practices, and set aside $400,000 for that purpose.

Important dates
The deadline for applications is Oct. 19. The education department is hosting online information sessions on Sept. 1 and Sept. 13.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“It’s been clear that when the administration talks about the Early Learning Challenge, a big piece is a quality-rating and -improvement system,” said Sara Mead, an early-childhood-policy expert and an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national education policy firm based in Washington. “The rationale makes sense. Before you can improve quality, you have to measure quality and tie it to some kind of [reward or] consequence.”

This is relatively new territory for states, especially tying any rating system to rewards or reimbursement rates.

“This has not been super-well-implemented,” said Ms. Mead, who is also an independent opinion blogger for Education Week. “One of the hopes is that, whatever happens, we research it really well.”

After the rating system, the next most important category, worth 65 points, is a state’s early-education track record and capacity to implement its plan.

The final three categories offer states a menu of options from which to choose. That approach reflects a change from the proposed rules released earlier this summer, which sparked worry from state officials that the list of actions they were expected to take was too long, with grant awards not big enough to support all the initiatives.

“When you look at the amount of money you’re talking about, it probably makes sense to scale back,” Ms. Mead said. “In the big states, $100 million over five years isn’t enough to do all of those things and move the ball on access.”

In devising ways to improve early-education outcomes for children, the Education Department says, states have to make progress in at least two of four areas to earn a maximum of 60 points: statewide early-learning standards for children, appropriate assessments for children, a plan to address health and behavioral needs, and a plan to engage and support families of high-needs children.

To improve the early-childhood workforce, worth 40 points, states need to create either a credentialing system for early-childhood educators or a system to improve the effectiveness and retention of those teachers.

And, for another 40 points, states will either have to implement kindergarten-readiness assessments or build or enhance their longitudinal-data systems to include early-education information.

Included in the 300-point scale are bonus points for a state that has all its early-education programs subject to the rating system and for a state that has a high-quality kindergarten test in place.

Judges Being Recruited

Outside judges, who are being recruited by the Education Department, will score the states. As in the original Race to the Top competition, Secretary Duncan said he has the authority to overrule the outside judges’ decisions on the early-learning winners. But he didn’t use that authority last year, when 12 winners shared $4 billion, and he said he doesn’t expect to use it this time, either.

Unlike last year’s broader Race to the Top competition, in which almost half the points were awarded on the basis of a state’s education record, most points in the early-learning competition are reserved for a state’s plan to improve early learning, and not its history in that area.

And that makes it more challenging to handicap the race, early-education advocates say.

The New America Foundation, in Washington, has done some early predictions, analyzing states’ funding for early education (at 2009-10 levels), their coordination across agencies, and whether states already have rating systems, among other attributes. That analysis, released last week, declared top contenders to be Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont.

But if states didn’t make New America’s list, there’s still hope, said Laura Bornfreund, the group’s early-education policy analyst.

“That’s one of the really good things about this competition,” she said. “It’s worth all states’ time. It lays out a vision, and any state really has a shot if they take the time to put together a high-quality plan.”

When the proposed rules came out in July, many advocates worried that the focus on assessments would mean high-stakes decisions would be made about preschoolers and their teachers.

Although the final rules clearly state that the kindergarten-readiness tests cannot be used to deny children access to kindergarten, the rules don’t seem to say anything about whether assessments can be used to make high-stakes decisions about early-childhood educators, such as on job protection or salaries.

Jacqueline Jones, a senior adviser to Mr. Duncan on early learning, said that “we want to be clear [the assessments are] designed to understand how children are learning.”

What’s more, Mr. Duncan said: “We will never ask 3-year-olds to take bubble tests.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Rating Systems Key to Early-Learning Grant Bids


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