New America Foundation's Take on the "Early Learning Challenge": Hope and Disappointment

Source: New America Foundation

Yesterday’s announcement of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge -- a $500 million grant competition for states -- presents a historic opportunity to improve early education, but it’s a bittersweet moment too. Here at the Early Education Initiative, we're hopeful and cautiously optimistic, but we cannot help be disappointed by structural deficiencies in the grant program that represent a missed chance for developing some much-needed connections between pre-kindergarten and early elementary school programs.

First, the reasons for hope.

Expanding and advancing early education has never been easy. Policymakers don’t always see the connection between kindergarten readiness and high school graduation, much less understand that getting the right start gives kids better odds at becoming healthy, productive citizens later in life. And, in years such as this one when state and school district budgets are strapped for cash, early education programs are sometimes cut despite, as research tells us, their potential to improve learning outcomes for children.

Which is why the early ed community should feel joyful about the new Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) competition: It undoubtedly represents a step forward. The $500 million is a big carrot -- a nearly three-quarters share of the $700 million appropriated by Congress for the new competition -- and that alone sends an important message about the Obama Administration’s commitment to early childhood and the need for states make some serious investments.  

It’s also refreshing to see the focus on building a system that can augment and provide more coordination between existing programs like Head Start, childcare, state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, and home-visiting initiatives. This is not a funding stream to some new, untested program -- this is a pot of money designed to prod states into networking,  leveraging and improving the programs they already have.

But, although the early education community doesn’t usually look a gift horse in the mouth, in this case, they may want to take a glance.

At a time when research studies like the Head Start Impact Study have shown the limits of relying too much on pre-kindergarten programs without any coordination with or emphasis on high-quality kindergarten and first-grade programs, and at a time when principals in elementary schools are becoming more cognizant of the value of early education programs, this new grant program represents a lost opportunity.

When Congress added early learning as a fifth priority for education reform in the passage of the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011, it seemed to be signaling that early learning should play an increased role in Race to the Top as we knew it. Integrating early learning into a more comprehensive Race to the Top program could have helped to improve the quality of both K-12 and early learning systems by increasing alignment and collaboration between the early education and elementary school worlds, an approach sometimes described as PreK-3rd. As we saw last year, the first two rounds of Race to the Top successfully encouraged states to make significant education policy changes such as eliminating caps on charter schools and rethinking teacher evaluation. It was a real shame, back then, that the competition did not also prioritize efforts to improve early childhood programs, helping them to become better coordinated amongst themselves and with the elementary school world. If it had done so, the program could have rewarded states for establishing a smooth transition up through the education pipeline beginning at birth.

Now, we may be watching another missed chance. With early education in a separate Race to the Top bubble that focuses on birth through age 5, the K-12 community has no incentive to reach out to early childhood programs and vice-versa. RTT-ELC is completely missing a connection with the early grades of elementary school, when children are still developing social-emotional skills and learning how to learn. The early grades may not have needed a financial boost -- they are fortunate, of course, to receive funding through K-12 formulas for public education -- but they could surely benefit from renewed focus on quality and continuity with well-designed early childhood programs.

Second, we hope that this Early Learning Challenge competition doesn’t take pressure off the idea that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) could be a vehicle for more focus on early learning (pre-k through third grade). This is a step that policymakers and advocates have been attempting for years and it would be a shame for potentially systemic policy reform to be replaced by a one-time infusion of funds.

Then there’s the money. The original Race to the Top doled out over $4 billion dollars, including grants to New York, Florida, and Ohio that were as big, or larger, than the entire Early Learning Challenge.  Is $500 million enough to capture a state’s attention -- and what kind of impact will it have if it’s distributed to so many states that the winners only receive a small share? Will this money just fill holes made by cuts to early care and education programs that states already plan to make?

There’s also not the same lead time for states in this early learning round of Race to the Top. Most states have already ended their legislative session and are finalizing state budgets for the next fiscal year. This means it is unlikely for state laws to be changed or major policy shifts to take place in an effort to give them a competitive edge.  

We cannot forget, of course, that whether this money actually makes a difference is going to depend on how states use it, and whether the federal government, in its application requirements, will push states to improve the quality of what children are experiencing and learning today.

The good news is that quality is a priority that was set by Congress and underscored by the Obama Administration. The devil-in-the-details question is how quality will be defined. Until we see the criteria for winning a grant, we can’t assume that the new money will automatically lead winning states to create programs that put adequate emphasis on intentional instruction and language development, to focus on building a strong workforce, or to set thoughtful early learning guidelines. We also agree, as Sara Mead mentioned on her Ed Week blog, that high-quality evaluation must be included as part of this grant program.

We’re now in a waiting game until the guidelines for the competition are released at the end of the summer. In the meantime, we plan to come up with some new ideas for the Administration on how the competition could be designed, this year and into the future, to ensure a continuum of high-quality education all the way up through the early grades.