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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Four Notes on Yesterday’s Release of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Application

Published:  August 24, 2011

Yesterday, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released the application that tells states what they must do to win a grant in the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). The application strikes most of the same notes that came in the draft guidelines earlier this summer, but with a few key shifts that could change the game for states when they apply for a piece of the $500 million:

  1. Added Flexibility for States. The application gives states the option to focus on fewer areas of their early learning systems, which is particularly important for states with smaller or younger early learning programs that may have been overreaching had they tried to address every part of the draft application.
  2. PreK-3rd strategies are still invitational priorities. The PreK-3rd approach will not take a starring role in this Race to the Top competition.
  3. States must have applied for FY2011 federal home visiting funding in order to apply for RTT-ELC.
  4. Comprehensive Assessment Systems take a back seat. Assessment systems are no longer a leading priority for RTT-ELC—though they still pay a role.

Applications are due October 19th, which puts states on a tight timeline for filling out the rather extensive application. It also means that it’s unlikely states will have time to pass legislation that better qualifies them for the funds, as many states did during the original Race to the Top competition.

States will be scored on a 300-point scale that includes a wide array of pieces necessary for a high-quality system. Here’s a breakdown of some of the prospective game-changers we learned about yesterday: 

Added flexibility for states

The application is more flexible than the draft guidelines. Many critics of the proposed guidelines complained that they were asking states to do too much, which could have either stymied states’ interest in even attempting to apply or stretched the award money too thinly across multiple projects. States now have some room to pick and choose what they will boost if they win RTT-ELC funds, within an overall scoring structure that prioritizes certain focus areas (and gives the ED and HHS some discretion in choosing the winners).

It’s important to understand that scoring for the final application is sliced two ways: States will have to pay attention to “Priorities,” which are broad interest areas of ED and HHS that states don’t need to write about in specific sections but must speak to in general throughout the application. Then there are “Selection Criteria,” the nuts and bolts of the application, where states lay out their plans for what they would do with their Early Learning Challenge funds. The Selection Criteria are more concrete, but they still speak to broad policy agendas held by the Department of Education and Health and Human Services. The Priorities and the Selection Criteria both contribute to an applicant’s final 300 point score, but they are separate scoring matrices. (Picture a “human body” lesson from biology, where transparencies of the human skeleton and the muscular system are layered on top of each other. This is how the Priorities and Selection Criteria relate—separate, but related.)

There is only one Absolute Priority, which states must address in the overall application: States must focus on kindergarten readiness for children with high needs, such as children from low-income families and children with disabilities. This priority is on a pass/fail basis.  Those reviewing the application will decide that a state’s plan either does or doesn’t meet this priority and only “passing” states will be eligible for Early Learning Challenge grants. Two additional Competitive Preference Priority areas can earn states 10 points overall in the competition; these Priorities speak to building quality rating and improvement systems, and having better data and information on children at kindergarten entry.

The Selection Criteria make up the application itself -- and the majority of the points system. Most of the 300 points for the application break down into five criteria, some of which states must address fully and some of which states could decide to address only part of. Section (C) is one of the Selection Criteria that allows for that flexibility: For example, states must speak to how they will improve outcomes for children in their application—but they can choose two or more out of four different ways to go about improving outcomes, such as engaging families or developing early learning standards. No matter what, the state will receive up to 30 points for this section—so whether the state choses to work on all four solutions or only two of them, it’s the quality of its answers that will earn up to 30 points. Three of the five Selection Criteria will be evaluated this way. Because of the Priorities, applications will speak to similar themes. But applications will likely differ state-by-state based on which Selection Criteria they focus on, and what they decide leave out or downplay in their applications.

PreK-3rd strategies are still invitational priorities

There are two Invitational (read: optional) Priorities in the application. A state’s plans to sustain the gains made in preschool through the early elementary years is one of them. As Samuel J. Meisels, president of Erikson Institute, said in a guest post on Early Ed Watch a few weeks ago, “Pre-K can’t inoculate a child against lousy schooling.” Focusing money on children ages 0-5 without a complimentary focus on ages 6-8 may prove an inefficient use of Race to the Top funds. Early Ed Watch advocated for rewarding states with plans to foster better cohesion between 0-5 years and the early elementary years in our comments on the draft guidelines, which are available here.  Doing so wouldn’t have required states to siphon dollars out of 0-5, and we still strongly believe that smart plans must include links to the K-3 grades. We hope states will continue to work on PreK-3rd connections as part of their overall strategies and look forward to seeing whether they include these ideas in their applications.

Home visiting program funding

States must meet certain initial requirements to show they are committed to building high-quality early childhood systems as the Department of Education and Health and Human Services sees them. Most of these requirements were in the draft guidelines, such as states having standards for children’s learning outcomes. There is one new Eligibility Requirement, however: In order to apply for a RTT-ELC grant, states must have submitted a FY 2011 application for the new federal funding for home visiting programs that was made available through the Affordable Care Act of 2010, or health care reform.

The application de-emphasizes Comprehensive Assessment Systems

“We will never ask three year olds to take bubble tests,” remarked Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a call with reporters yesterday.  The emphasis on assessing children that was in the original Early Learning Challenge guidelines sparked a lot of controversy from critics who feared the new competition would end with children across the country taking standardized bubble tests. Secretary Duncan called the idea “ludicrous” and reiterated that kindergarten entry assessments and other assessments for young kids can take on many forms, such as observing children while in a classroom setting, that have little in common with the standardized tests high school students take.

Still, the RTT-ELC application backed off from its original emphasis on assessments. In the draft guidelines for the application, the first Absolute Priority was titled, “Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness.” The assessment piece has been removed from the leading parts of the application, but it remains in areas that aren’t weighted as heavily and are easier for states to avoid if they choose to. A state having a Kindergarten Entry Assessment is now a part of one Competitive Priority—meaning that states that already have these assessments in place will receive a boost of up to 10 points. In the Selection Criteria, states must again address assessments as a minor part of their plans for a Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System. They then may chose to talk about assessment again in Section (C), where “Supporting effective uses of a comprehensive assessment system” is one option states can chose from when they lay out their plan for promoting better outcomes for early learning programs.

Twenty-four states already have kindergarten entry assessments, according to a report from the National Council of State Legislatures, and the original application had safeguards in place to ensure that the assessments developed by states are developmentally appropriate and well-tailored to young children.

Later this week, the Early Education Initiative will roll out some predictions on which states are poised to do well in the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, and which are weaker contenders.  Sara Mead at her EdWeek blog also has in-depth analysis of how the final application differs from the draft. And our ongoing coverage of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge is aggregated on this page, which we will keep updated as the competition unfolds.

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