It’s quite good. Let’s make it better.
That’s the gist of our perspective on the proposal for the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, an unprecedented opportunity for states to win millions of dollars to strengthen the quality and coordination of early learning programs.
Today is the deadline for comments on the proposed requirements for the new federal program, which calls on states to compete for grants that, in the largest states, could be worth up to $100 million. (Comments can be submitted on this page of the Ed.gov site.) Here at the Early Education Initiative, we commend the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for designing a competition that emphasizes several key components of a strong system of early learning – from standards development to data sharing to collaborative governance. In our formal comments, we highlight more than a dozen sections of the draft document that are worthy of applause.
We also provide five recommendations for strengthening the competition, particularly in its ability to promote a more seamless system of early learning extending to kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school. Here are our ideas for improving it:
Elevate Priority 4 to a Competitive Preference Priority.
Priority 4: Sustaining Program Effects in the Early Elementary Grades is currently designed as an invitational priority. Efforts to sustain learning gains should be rewarded – they are a critical piece of ensuring that states make the most of their early learning investments and that children continue to receive high-quality instruction in elementary school. An “invitational” priority is not enough to push states to create the kinds of collaborative environments that are necessary for shared professional development, shared data systems and shared development of standards and assessments. This kind of sharing and coordination would help to ensure that children experience a ladder of learning[i] from their earliest years onto kindergarten and through the early grades.
Under Priority 4, ask states to submit plans for workforce development that recognize the importance of including K-3 teachers and leaders in workshops on cognitive and social development; content areas such as language arts, science and math; coaching initiatives; leadership institutes[ii]; and any other professional development (PD) programs that inform educators about how to effectively engage young children in learning. The inclusion of these stakeholders in new PD programs could be paid for using non-ELC funds, such as Title I dollars. The priority could be written to include this bullet:
o Ensuring that statewide professional development efforts allow for the inclusion of K-3 teachers, leaders, curricula and assessment directors, family liaisons, and other positions.
Ensure that states are prepared to support elementary schools and kindergarten teachers in administering kindergarten-entry assessments. Because kindergarten-readiness assessments are typically administered during the kindergarten year, they require the cooperation of kindergarten teachers, principals and other professionals within elementary schools. To be administered properly and to ensure that the data from the assessments is used appropriately to inform instruction and communicate with parents, states should provide support, training and professional development related to these assessments. And to ensure that these assessments provide an accurate reflection of children’s strengths and weaknesses, states and localities may need the flexibility to collect data on children after they have spent a few months acclimating to the school setting. To this end, criteria B-3 could be enhanced and clarified by:
o Encouraging states to provide shared professional opportunities that address the use of these assessments. This PD should be shared among principals, early childhood center directors, pre-k teachers, childcare professionals, kindergarten teachers, and teachers in the 1st through 3rd grades so they can learn to use and act on the data from those assessments in ways that reflect what is known about how young children learn and develop.
o Clarifying when and how states may choose to administer these assessments, allowing for the flexibility of assessing children after they have become adjusted to school routines and when they might provide the most accurate reflection of children’s skills.
Include K-3 stakeholders in plans for organizing and aligning states’ early learning and development system. The criteria ask states to demonstrate how state agencies and partners will work together but omits any mention of elementary schools or other K-3 stakeholders in the planning process. The criteria under A (3)(iv) should explicitly encourage states to include stakeholders with ties to elementary schools, such as school boards, principals, school district curricula directors, and kindergarten and early grades teachers.
In pushing for improvements to the workforce, recognize that many credentialing systems are designed to span pre-kindergarten through the third grade. Many post-secondary institutions are providing preparation for prospective teachers who will receive P-3 or PreK-3rd credentials. These credentials, if designed well, could become key ingredients in a state’s plans for building a system of sustained learning programs up through elementary schools. Yet Criteria D does not seem to reflect the existence of these credentials. The criteria under “partnering with postsecondary institutions” should be written to ensure that states’ plans are not restricted only to teachers in childcare and pre-kindergarten classrooms but also encompass credentialing programs that span the full spectrum of early childhood including kindergarten and the early grades.
For Early Ed Watch’s continuing coverage on the Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge, check out our special page.
[ii] Over the past year, at least two states have provided examples of how to develop shared professional development programs that strengthen relationships between early childhood leaders and elementary school principals and promote more effective classroom instruction from pre-kindergarten through elementary school. See our blog posts on New Jersey’s Pre-K-3rd Leadership Series and Pennsylvania’s Early Childhood Executive Leadership Institute.