The draft guidelines for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge outline five “priorities” that states will have to work toward to win grants. For example, one of the priorities is “Using Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems to Promote School Readiness.” High marks go to states that either use, or have a good plan for how to use, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) rating systems to promote quality in their early ed programs.
But all priorities are not equal. The five priorities break down into three categories: Absolute, Competitive, and Invitational. There are two Absolute priorities (like the example mentioned above) that states must meet and one Competitive priority that is weighted less but is still considered a factor in whether or not a state will become a RTT-ELC winner.
Then there are the two invitational priorities, which don’t count towards a state’s score. Though the Department of Education says these are areas of “particular interest,” a state that chooses to address the invitational priorities does not actually gain any points or receive any other boosts in the competition. The two invitational priorities are, “Sustaining Program Effects in the Early Elementary Grades,” and “Encouraging Private Sector Support.” The former, on sustaining program effectiveness, is crucial to advocates of the PreK-3rd approach to early ed (including Early Ed Watch). It speaks to the need to build high-quality, aligned education systems that help children sustain the growth they experience in a birth-to-five program (such as preschool) so that they continue to make strides during elementary school, not to mention the rest of their public school years.
Are invitational priorities worthwhile for states or, for that matter, for the federal government? As far as we can tell, there isn’t much analysis out there on this point. Though they aren’t unheard of in other education grant competitions, these “priorities” don’t appear to hold a whole lot of clout. What does the invitational priority do aside from adding length to the already extensive (and expensive) application process for states?
In Round 1 of Race to the Top, “early learning” was one invitational priority, and nine of the 12 RTTP winners did chose to include early ed in their applications. But there’s no sign that the inclusion of early learning actually made their applications stronger in the eyes of reviewers. There were some states, such as Colorado, that had robust plans for early learning but missed out on the Round 1 grants altogether.
Those who believe that creating a seamless continuum of learning for children up through the third grade are not satisfied with the “invitational” nod. This is one of our critiques in the formal comments we submitted today to the federal agencies; we’d like to see the invitational priority elevated to competitive one. This would send a clear signal that the Administration is serious about its often-stated commitment to building a continuous pipeline of high-quality education from birth to career.