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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Recommendations to HHS and ED on the Early Learning Challenge

Published:  June 21, 2011

Close readers of this blog know that we talk a lot about building bridges between "birth-to-age-5" early childhood programs and the early elementary school years.  Could the new $500-million federal grant competition -- the Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge (RttT-ELC) -- help to build those bridges and, better yet, foster a more continuous system of early learning from the day a child is born through his last day of third grade?

Absolutely. In fact, we see the RttT-ELC as an exciting opportunity for both the augmentation and development of better birth-to-five systems and the creation of new connections to the early grades of school. Principals and teachers in the early grades could learn a lot, for example, from the research-based tools that are currently used in a growing number of early childhood programs to promote better interactions between adults and children.

But continuity won't happen automatically. To foster it, the guidelines for the RttT-ELC will have to be written carefully to create a hospitable environment, spur better alignment and avoid erecting more barriers between the two worlds.

In a collaborative effort with several other groups, the Early Education Initiative has put forth a series of recommendations for officials in the two departments -- the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education -- who are busily constructing the guidelines for the new grant. They have said they will put out a Notice Inviting Applications by the end of the summer.

Our recommendations aim to provide guidance on topics of alignment that may not be on the radar screens of other groups: they are focused entirely on building better continuity between birth-to-5 systems and the K-3 grades. We see these ideas as complementary to the many excellent recommendations related to quality and systems development that are already pouring forth from the early childhood community.

The recommendations provide advice in four categories: 1) governance, funding and data efforts 2) standards, assessments and program improvement 3) professional development and 4) transitions.  The full text provides details. For example, we suggest that the competition is built to "reward states that share information from quality rating and improvement systems with elementary schools and school districts" as part of their quality improvement efforts. We also recommend that states be rewarded if they can "extend the use of research-based tools for assessing the quality of instruction, teacher-child interactions, and learning environments into K-3 classrooms."

Another recommendation centers on standards. We think that states should be rewarded for aligning their early learning and K-3 standards. To avoid the narrow focus of academics-only initiatives, we also think states should be encouraged to set "research-based expectations for children of all ages in all key areas of child development including cognitive (literacy/communications, mathematics, science, and social studies), social, emotional, and physical development."

Co-signers of the letter include, in alphabetical order, Bridget Hamre, senior scientist at the University of Virginia; Kristie Kauerz, program director of PreK-3rd education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Chris Maxwell, director of the New Schools Project at Erikson Institute; Sharon Ritchie, director of FirstSchool and senior scientist at the FPG Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Tonja Rucker, principal associate at the Institute for Youth and Families at the National League of Cities; and Thomas Schultz, program director of Next Generation Learners at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

If incorporated into the grant competition's guidelines, we believe that these ideas could go a long way toward helping states to position their early learning systems to strategically align with the early grades. Those better connections would not only give young children a strong start but also enable them to benefit from a seamless system of learning throughout their formative years, providing them with an excellent foundation for success in school and life.

The recommendations were also posted in the comments field of the Ed.gov blog post that is functioning as the repository of public input on how the Early Learning Challenge program should be designed.

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