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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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What States Must Do to Win an Early Learning Challenge Grant

Published:  August 23, 2011

According to guidelines and an application released today by the Department of Education, states will have to promote kindergarten readiness, coordinate early learning programs and increase access to high-quality programs among high-need children if they want to win a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant.

States will compete for slices of a $500 million pie, with grants awarded to winning states in increments of $50 to $100 million, depending on the states’ share of the national population of low-income children between birth and five-years old. (This spring, Congress appropriated $700 million for a third round of Race to the Top with a portion focused exclusively on early childhood; the Department of Education has reserved $200 million for states that ranked as finalists, but did not receive grants, in the previous Race to the Top rounds.)  

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed in a call with reporters this afternoon that the competition sets a "high bar." The challenge is organized around five policy priorities referred to as “Focused Investment Areas” in the application:

  • Successful state systems: States must explain their commitment to creating and implementing a successful statewide early learning system that coordinates policy and practice across all relevant agencies.
  • High-quality, accountable programs: States must develop a common set of standards to align the goals of a full array of early learning programs across funding streams such as Head Start, Title I, and IDEA.
  • Promoting early learning and development outcomes for children: Under this focus area, states are asked, for example, to define the academic, social, and emotional knowledge and skills young children should learn.
  • A great early childhood education workforce: States must show how they plan to work closely with postsecondary institutions and other workforce development stakeholders to improve educator preparedness, quality, and retention across the early learning workforce.
  • Measuring outcomes and progress: States must describe how they plan to implement kindergarten entry assessments statewide and/or create comprehensive data systems that will track program quality.

Not all focus areas are weighted equally. A whopping 75 of the possible 300 points are devoted to creating Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), which rate programs as one-star through five-star programs depending on their quality based on common standards, share ratings with the public, and help programs improve their quality. The department puts the next highest value on “successful state systems,” at 65 points. There are two “competitive” priorities worth 10 points each: states win those points if they include all early learning programs within the QRIS, and have a system in place to understand the skills of children at the time they enter kindergarten.

The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services developed the RTT – ELC application jointly, with a draft released in July. A short comment period brought in more than 300 comments, many of which expressed concern about the magnitude of what states were asked to do, according to Joan Lombardi, HHS deputy assistant secretary and inter-departmental liaison for early childhood, and Jacqueline Jones, senior advisor on early learning to Secretary Duncan.  The officials said this concern was addressed in the final application by allowing states to choose what to focus on in specific areas. (Check back for more on this change tomorrow.)

One element that didn’t change was the “invitational priority” that asked states to write about how they would “sustain learning gains” by connecting programs to elementary schools. Invitational priorities are areas of interest to ED and HHS, but are not assigned any points. In a letter written with several other organizations in June, the New America Foundation recommended ways to motivate states to build such systems, and in comments in July, the New America Foundation pushed for this to be a competitive priority.The final application does mention the alignment of early learning and K-3 standards, but we would’ve preferred a deeper focus here.

States that intend to throw their hat in the ring must submit their application by Oct 19. On Sept. 1 the DOE will host a webinar to help states navigate the application. There will be a technical assistance workshop on Sept. 13. Officials said the selection of peer reviewers is underway, and grants will be awarded to winning states in December.

Resources for states applying can be found at CLASP and the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative. Also don’t forget to read our ongoing coverage here at Early Ed Watch.

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