The Obama Administration released details today on the proposed design of the competition for its new Early Learning Challenge, a $500-million state competition that aims to improve the quality and coordination of early learning programs. Officials stress that it will be highly competitive and focus on school readiness, including the use of assessments to determine if children are prepared for kindergarten.
A draft of the requirements shows that states would have a chance to compete for relatively large four-year grants: up to $50 million for states with the smallest populations of high-need children and up to $100 million for the states with the largest, with some gradation for the in-between states. The program received funding this spring as part of the Race to the Top education reform program. It is being called RTT-ELC for short. (UPDATE: The proposed requirements are now available here.)
“As with the first two rounds of Race to the Top, the bar to receive an RTT-ELC grant will be set high,” the draft document says.
There is no word of exactly how many grants would be awarded, or whether the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, who are jointly administering the program, are aiming for a specific number of winners.
Officials at the departments will be collecting public feedback on the draft over the next week. (For more information on deadlines and how to comment, see our accompanying post.)
To simply be eligible to apply for a grant, states would need to have an operational State Advisory Council on Early Childhood. Last year, the vast majority of states received federal grants to build those councils. (The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has more information on how these councils are set up, and the Early Education Initiative tackled the subject in its 2009 issue brief, "The Next Step in Systems-Building: Early Childhood Advisory Councils and Federal Efforts to Promote Policy Alignment in Early Childhood." )
To win, according to the draft guidelines, states must show a commitment to two priorities. First, they must show that they are using early learning standards (which list expectations of what children should know and be able to do at various ages) and assessments that determine a child’s readiness to start kindergarten. Second, they must use, or show a commitment to developing, a “Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System,” known in the field as a QRIS. Approximately two dozen states have such systems in place so far. These systems apply a rating – such as one star, two stars, and on up – to publicly funded programs like childcare centers and pre-k programs to indicate whether the programs are of high quality.
The draft outlines three other priorities too. States could win extra points by including all early learning programs in such a system. And states could choose to write about two other characteristics of their systems but they would not receive extra points for them: 1) their ability to “sustain program effects in the early elementary grades” and 2) their ability to encourage “private sector support.”
The draft document provides far more specifics on these five priorities. It is laid out similarly to the guidelines in the Race to the Top program that received attention and publicity among K-12 circles last year.
The federal departments also want states to provide information in four categories:
- Successful state systems
- Promoting early learning and development outcomes for children
- High-quality, accountable programs
- A great early childhood education workforce
For example, under the “successful state systems” criteria, states would be required to establish baseline numbers, annual targets and final goals for increasing the number of disadvantaged children in high-quality programs as well as goals for improving the school readiness of those children as measured by kindergarten-entry assessments.
States would also have to demonstrate that they have designed their governance structures – including a plan for involving representatives from early childhood organizations and families -- to facilitate “system-wide coordination.”
Under the criteria on improving children’s outcomes, states would be asked to develop standards that are age-appropriate and cover a range of domains, including social and emotional development and physical well-being.
In the “accountability” section, states would be asked to validate whether their QRIS systems accurately reflect differentiated levels of quality, are related to children’s learning and development, and “build toward school readiness.”
The criteria include a plethora of other factors as well, including requests for states to show how well their teacher preparation programs are aligned with their early childhood plans and whether states have programs in place, such as scholarships or wage supplements, to assist early educators in gaining higher degrees.
There is much to pore over – quite a lot to take in and comment upon before the July 11the deadline for public input. We’ll continue to follow developments here on Early Ed Watch, providing commentary and analysis in the coming days.
Don't miss our special page with continuing news coverage and commentary on the Early Learning Challenge grant program and how it came into existence.