Early Childhood

States Face Challenges in Early-Ed. Race to Top Scramble

By Maureen Kelleher — July 12, 2011 6 min read
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States hoping to win a share of the $500 million in federal aid aimed at early-childhood education in the latest Race to the Top contest face this challenge: How to get lasting benefit from one-time grants much smaller than the first few rounds of the school improvement initiative.

Experts say projects likely to give the most bang for the buck include building and coordinating state data systems to track children from early-childhood programs into elementary school and beyond, creating and expanding quality-rating and improvement systems for child-care providers, and strengthening the use of assessments to measure both individual children’s progress and the caliber of the programs they attend.

“We don’t need bubble sheets for 3- and 4-year-olds,” said Marci Young, the policy director for Pre-K Now, a Washington-based research and advocacy arm of the Pew Center on the States. “We need real assessments, a lot of observational things. It’s a more complicated process to understand where children are, but it can be done.”

The latest round of the Obama administration’s signature education improvement program was made possible by the fiscal 2011 budget deal Congress passed in April, which poured a fresh $700 million into the Race to the Top. The program was originally passed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chose to put most of that new money into early education, while keeping a $200 million slice to award to runners-up from last year’s competition, in which 11 states and the District of Columbia split $4 billion.

The new Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge is open to all states, with grants ranging from $50 million to $100 million, depending on a state’s population. That could be especially attractive for small states, which were eligible for maximum grants of $75 million in the first edition of the Race to the Top. For big states, $100 million won’t go as far; the biggest states in the original competition won $700 million each.

Competition Guidelines

  • The $500 million federal competition to improve early learning is open to all states, with individual awards ranging from $50 million to $100 million.

  • To win, states will have to craft early-learning and -development standards and assessments for children, including kindergarten-readiness tests.

  • States will need to incorporate early-learning data into their longitudinal-data systems and create rating systems for early-education programs.

  • The U.S. Department of Education has said it may place special emphasis on proposals that will improve early learning in rural communities—for example, bypassing a higher-scoring urban state in favor of a lower-scoring rural one.

  • Applications will be available in late summer, and awards will be made by the end of the year. States will have until Dec. 31, 2015, to spend their grant money.

    Source: U.S. Department of Education

The new competition is designed to improve the quality of and access to early-childhood programs, and to eliminate some of the “vast inequities” in care, Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to the president for education, said in a call with reporters June 30.

“We believe this Race to the Top can have the same kind of impact,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “How do we really do more to boost the quality of our early-learning programs?”

Under the competition guidelines drawn up by the Education Department—working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—a winning state will have to develop rating systems for its programs, craft appropriate standards and assessments for young children, and set clear expectations for what early-education teachers should know.

Applications for the awards are expected to be available in late summer, and the grants are to be made by the end of the year. The winning states will have until the end of 2015 to spend the money.

“The competition focuses on the key systems reforms that will get us to close the preparation gap,” said Elizabeth Burke-Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count and co-chair of that state’s Early Learning Council. She said the latest Race to the Top round “also lifts up the importance of building a continuum of early learning from birth to the end of 3rd grade.”

Building Data Systems

Whichever states emerge as front-runners, there was strong consensus even before details of the competition emerged about the types of projects they would need to undertake.

“It’s going to have to go into infrastructure—building the house, not paying the cable bill,” said Lisa Guernsey, the director of the early-childhood initiative at the Washington-based New America Foundation.

Helene Stebbins, a Virginia-based consultant with the national Birth to Five Policy Alliance, said one strategy could be to create a “unique identifier” for each child that could be used across programs within the early-childhood world and into K-12 and even higher education. Another could be to link identifiers across data systems to track children and families.

But building data systems can be controversial. “A unique identifier may be the most elegant way to do it, but there’s political resistance growing against it,” Ms. Stebbins said, because of privacy concerns and distrust of government.

Another big challenge in tracking young learners is that the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs use a reporting system “that doesn’t interface at all with state-level systems,” said Rachel Demma, a senior policy analyst with the National Governors Association.

The federal programs also aggregate data by Head Start programs, making it impossible to track individual children. States are beginning to work with Head Start delegate agencies and providers to create an alternative tracking system, said Ms. Demma.

There are also practical hurdles in creating one identifier per child, even while the technological barriers to data-matching may be crumbling. “Right now, we don’t know” what will become best practice around data, Ms. Stebbins said.

Rhode Island was one of four states that received technical assistance last year from the NGA to start building a longitudinal tracking system for children.

“We’ve done the important work of having all our state departments that serve children agree we need to connect data seamlessly, longitudinally,” said Ms. Burke-Bryant. “We know the same families end up in multiple services, and we have to track all the outcomes over time.

“We’re now taking the next step to try to link the data systems and have consistent data tracking from birth to end of 3rd grade,” she said. “This is the top of our agenda.”

Colorado has its eye on a system that could track children’s outcomes from preschool through college.

“We’re most of the way there, but we don’t have it all in place yet,” said Lt. Gov. Joseph A. Garcia, who leads the state’s work in both early learning and preschool-through-college education. “We’re committed to it, and it’s going to happen.”

Already, 19 states have some kind of quality-rating and improvement system in place to help parents and policymakers distinguish among early-care and -learning programs. Most systems use star ratings like those for restaurants and hotels, with a maximum of three or five stars. Often, states provide incentives to parents who choose to enroll their children in higher-rated programs, and to care providers to join the system and make improvements to earn higher ratings.

Colorado was one of the first states to develop a rating system and has strong participation. “This is one where we think we’re ahead,” said Lt. Gov. Garcia. But there’s still room to improve, he said, and the Race to the Top could help.

“Not every family provider out there is part of the system,” he said. “We’re trying to raise awareness among parents to look for it.”

Incentives and Training

In Rhode Island, Ms. Burke-Bryant said, the state would like to encourage more child-care providers to join its system by offering more incentives to child-care centers and home-based day-care programs.

State leaders also emphasize the importance of improving training for caregivers and teachers despite the constraints.

“We could give them a big injection of training on infant-toddler development,” suggested Harriet Meyer, who co-chairs Illinois’ Early Learning Advisory Council and leads strategic initiatives for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which formed the Educare network of preschools and advocates for early-childhood programs in Illinois and nationally.

Other ideas include improvements to Illinois’ home-visiting program and implementing a recently developed kindergarten-readiness assessment.

Though Ms. Meyer noted that early childhood has been chronically underfunded, she said the Race to the Top awards should be sufficient to make real change.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Face Challenges in Early-Ed. Race to Top Scramble


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